Archive for June, 2008

Farewell, Mr. Gates

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Today Bill Gates officially retires from Microsoft. As much as we might like to hate his policies, without him I doubt our industry would be what it is today. He took the power out of the hands of IBM and put it into the hands of everyday consumers. He amassed a great fortune, and it looks like he’ll be using the rest of his life to spend it, mainly on charitable causes. By doing so he has created an example for others, like Warren Buffett. I wish him well.

The first piece of computer software I ever bought was published by Microsoft. It was the “Colossal Cave Adventure” for the TRS-80.



A picture of me yoinked from my high school yearbook

The TRS-80 was my first computer. I got it for Christmas 1978 when I was 12 years old. It had 4K of RAM and a black and white screen. By April of 1979 I had upgraded it to 48K of RAM (the other 16K of addressable memory was in ROM) and added two 80K floppy drives. That system ran “TRS-DOS” which shared a lot of similarities for what would become MS-DOS.

Now, back then most software was “open” in some sense. Most programs for the TRS-80 were written in BASIC, which is an interpreted language so it was not possible to hide the code. We didn’t have the Internet back then, so my main contact with others was through magazines, such as Creative Computing and Kilobaud. They would often publish program listings that I would stay up late typing in and modifying. Of course I’d make mistakes, but that would help me learn to troubleshoot code.

My Dad was working for General Electric at the time, and I sometimes got to play on their PDP 8. It ran FORTRAN, but it was similar enough to BASIC that it was easy to pick up. In 1982 he bought one of the first IBM PCs: CGA monitor, dual floppies, 256K soldered to the motherboard.

Also in 1982 I went off to high school. They had a VAX, and so I was introduced to the concept of multiuser systems. We had e-mail and shared space were we could put up documents – sort of a precursor to the web.

In 1984 I went off to California to attend Harvey Mudd College, one of the many colleges I eventually was asked to leave (I’ve been kicked out of some of the finest schools in the country). There I met my first VAX running UNIX (Berkeley I believe) and experienced the Internet for the first time (as well as wasting hours playing rogue).

When I eventually returned to North Carolina in 1986 I didn’t have a computer, but a friend had bought one of those fancy “Macintosh” computers. It was pretty cool, but I couldn’t afford one so I used a PC. Several friends of mine from Mudd had gone off to work for this company called Microsoft outside of Seattle. They would send me software, including a Paint program launched on a system called Windows (version 1.0). It really didn’t compare to, say, MacPaint on the Mac, but little did I know how it would catch on. I also got Windows version 2 and eventually 3.0. I could run an app called Procomm that would let me use a modem to communicate with other systems.

Using a modem you could dial in to bulletin board systems (BBSes) and post messages, send mail and download files. I tended toward those systems running WWIV, and in just day or two I could get a message to a friend of mine across the country through Fidonet and other grassroots networks.

Some BBSes were multiuser, but that required multiple, expensive phone lines. So flame wars were funny: you’d have to post, log off, wait awhile until the other guy could log in and post, then repeat the process.

I can remember when 2400 baud modems came out because it was the first time the text would download faster than I could read it. True Internet access was only available on campus, but I eventually found a way to dial in to the campus network (I had friend in IT) so I could use it from my apartment.

Ah, those were the days. Anyway, what are your first memories of Microsoft and what was your first computer?

Gettin’ Our Marketing On

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

At OpenNMS it seems that we are always doing things backwards. We didn’t spend any time working on a business plan and seeking investment, we just started to provide services and running a profitable business. We didn’t hire any dedicated sales people, because we found that our technical people are the best at sales. And we pretty much let the project market our business.

I don’t like marketing. While I enjoy finding out about new things I might want to buy, or things that may help solve a problem, too much of marketing seems to be about creating an artificial need than actually helping customers. I know that’s a little harsh, but I’ve seen too many marketing campaigns that either rely on superlatives (“We’re the best, everyone else sucks, buy me!”) or fear (“You’ll lose your data, you’ll lose your job, you’ll lose your money unless you buy me!”) that I just get turned off by the whole mess.

And we’ve done well without any marketing. I still wince when someone posts to the opennms-discuss list with “Is there commercial support for this and where do I find it?” but I’d rather keep OpenNMS the Project distinctly separate from OpenNMS the Services Business than gain a sale or two.

But something happened that made me rethink our need for marketing. We were talking with a potential client in the UK. They had talked to most of the commercial players as well as the commercial “open source” players and then they came to us. David talked with them a bit, and this is the reply I got:

Talking with Dave was an eye opener for $COWORKER and myself, I was under the right impression already from the email discussions I have been having with Jeff and yourself. We find you guys very honest and easy to discuss with about our environment and the challenges we currently face.

We got the PO.

What we provide is a very personalized, results focused experience. The fact is that if OpenNMS is not a right fit for your organization, we don’t want you as a client. We’d just end up spending hours upon hours trying to get OpenNMS to do something it isn’t designed to do. It doesn’t work for us, it doesn’t work for the client. So we’re very eager to learn about the goals for a potential OpenNMS deployment as well as being quite honest if it doesn’t fit. A software company, on the other hand, hopes you’ll buy the product and not use it. If you use it, you might need support, and in their business model one of the best cases is if it becomes shelfware, since support costs money and reduces margins. At OpenNMS we have to provide great service since you can always just continue to use the product without us.

But how do I get this across?

Since I suck at marketing, I needed to find someone who understood it and who understood open source. Then I remembered a woman I met at BarcampESM.

As luck would have it, Michelle Greer understands both and she had just started her own company, SimpleSpeak Media.



Dave, Matt, Ben, me and Michelle

So for once I got to be the customer and order me up some of that consulting mojo. Michelle came up to metropolitan Pittsboro for a couple of days and really helped us work out a plan. For one thing, she pointed out that the .org site gets 50K unique visitors a month, and the .com site … 2500.

We still have a number of things to finish, but I think that soon we’ll have a … well, I think it’s called a “campaign”. Something that stays true to our free and open roots and makes it easier for our community to help overcome any resistance they may find in their organizations to FOSS.

If you’re in the same boat with respect to marketing, give Michelle a shout.

Twitter

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Okay, so I don’t always rush out to try the latest and greatest meme to sweep the intarwebs. I’m slow.

Apparently, not as slow as Twitter.



Gah.

I’m an old guy. I don’t twit. I still think e-mail is pretty “keen”.

But I decided to try it. I set up my account and downloaded Twitterific. Several guys in the office had accounts so I started to follow them. This is what I got for my trouble:



This sounds like a job for OpenNMS. Hey – Twitter dudes – drop me a “tweet” @Sortova and we’ll see if we can help with things like this:



since you can see I haven’t done 70 tweets in my life, much less an hour. I”m not Coté. (grin)

But hey, if you like this sort of thing, feel free to follow “OpenNMS“.

If you can.

George Carlin, RIP

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

I started working on OpenNMS on September 10th, 2001. Needless to say, my second day on the job is easy to remember.

Since then I start my day by hitting my RSS feeds to see what is in the news. Today I awoke to find out that George Carlin had died.

The news services are starting to pick up the story.

I am a big fan of Carlin. Part of it is due to his brilliance, but another has to deal with my admiration for people who are willing to take a chance and do something different, even if it is met with scorn, and in Carlin’s case, lawsuits.

My first date with my wife was to see Carlin from the second row at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh. I am such a romantic.

So may we all hum the Seven Words today, and I hope that George is watching it all on Heavenly CNN.

Customer Service Stories: Etymotic

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

I started maintaining OpenNMS in May of 2002. By early 2003 the company was doing well enough that I decided I needed a little reward for all of the 80 hour weeks, so I bought a 12″ Powerbook the day it was announced, and I also ordered an iPod.

Back then I traveled as much as I do now, and having something like an iPod helped make the trips more pleasant. However, I wasn’t happy with the default earbuds when it came to dealing with the noise of the aircraft cabin. All the road warriors were buying the Bose noise-cancelling headsets so I decided to check them out.

I didn’t like them for two main reasons. First, they were large. When you schlep bags through airports for a living you want things as small and light as possible. Second, they required a power source. I am constantly being let down by my battery powered devices and I didn’t want to have to deal with another one.

It was then I learned about a company called Etymotic. They pioneered the idea of audiophile-quality in-ear headphones. Think of it as earplugs with amazing sound. They basically block out all sound waves except for that which comes through the bones of your skull, plus they are lightweight, small and require no external power. Most of the reviews I read had the Eymotics beating the Bose hands down.

Ben Reed had gotten a set of ER-4Ps and he let me try them. They were as amazing as I had been lead to believe. While they don’t block out all sound, as long as you have something playing through them you really can’t hear anything else.

So I bought a pair. At the time they were a little more expensive than the Bose (around US$350) but they saved my sanity on more than one occasion. Now when I sit down on a plane and notice the infant (or infants) in the row next to me, or the loud group of college students, or practically any other possible source of noise pollution, I smile, put in my 4Ps, and relax.

Now something like 300,000 air miles later, my 4Ps had seen better days. The insulation had rubbed off in a few areas, but the death knell came on my return from Europe when the right earphone went out.

Grrr.

So I called up Etymotic and found out I could get them repaired for about US$50. Off they went, and a week later I received some bad news. After the cables were replaced, they tested the 4Ps and found some slight distortion on the right earphone. Since they have to repair them in matched sets, they just decided to send me a whole new set of 4Ps.



Wow.

That’s what I call customer service, especially with a product this expensive (although they’ve come down in price about half since I bought mine originally). If you’re looking for some high quality headphones, please check these out.