Archive for May, 2009

Published by Kenneth on 24 May 2009

People just don’t understand at times…

Every once in a while an article on Yahoo! Tech catches my attention. This time, it’s an article about a cellular customer who incurred a $62,000 cell phone bill. Now we’ve heard of cell phone bills in the past reaching into the thousands of dollars – typically because of texting plans where usage ended up being much, much higher than the allotment. A father in Cheyenne, WY, smashed his daughter’s cell phone after she incurred a huge bill for texting her friends like mad.

But the case of the $62,000 cell phone is one of entertainment and international roaming. According to Yahoo! Tech, quoting a CNN report, the customer downloaded a copy of the movie Wall-E, about a 1 GB download, across his wireless data card while in Mexico. Having a wireless data card is nice, but one thing most don’t realize (because they don’t read the fine print) is that you are capped at a maximum download usage of 5 GB for each billable month.

Plus use your cell phone for anything internationally and you will incur additional fees. Why is this? It’s the same concept as roaming: you are using someone else’s network and not the network of your cellular provider. When you do this, your provider incurs charges from the network you “borrowed”, along with expenses for patching through the call you made. When you borrow a cellular network in another country, let alone another continent, things can get expensive fast, for you and your provider.

And one concept that should be very familiar to everyone is that all costs incurred by a business are eventually passed on to their customers.

Now in today’s world where you can get an unlimited family text plan for a reasonable price (I’m paying $25/month through AT&T) and unlimited data plans as well, with unlimited call plans coming down the pipe (they’re still prohibitively expensive, in my opinion), many of the commenters to the Yahoo! Tech post were complaining about corporate greed. One commenter mentioned that because most do not use a majority of their talk time, something that, arguably, cell phone providers bank on, that there is no reason for cell phone providers to not lower their prices.

An argument similar to this has been used in regard to the oil and pharmaceutical industries without regard to what those companies do with that money (hint: they don’t line their pockets with it). So what do these companies do with their profits? Simple, they invest it.

In the case of cellular companies, the investment has allowed for significant upgrades to cellular systems throughout the United States and abroad. While there have been significant advances in wireless phone technologies, the cellular systems providers are responsible for actually providing the ability for those phones to work, and that requires periodic technology upgrades, which requires capital, which tends to come from previous years’ profits that have been sitting in a bank somewhere.

One commenter called for the Federal government to institute caps to overage charges. The reasoning behind this is that the cellular providers, who are still subordinate to the FCC in the United States, must license bandwidth from the Federal government, so the FCC should institute a rule providing caps on overage charges. Ah, just what we need, more government intervention…

The cellular plans existing today are proof positive of the effectiveness of free markets. Now I’m not talking your standard contracts where you walk into an AT&T store, pick up an iPhone, and set up your plan. Actually what helped bring cellular plan rates under control was the introduction of pre-paid plans.

The first pre-paid plans I recall seeing were offered by MCI in 1998 or 1999. The phones were older model phones, but they still did the job, and you paid for the time you used – but you still had to purchase a certain minimum over a certain period to maintain the phone number, much like every other pre-paid plan today. Stop using the phone and you lose the number, and the minutes you’ve bought.

Today, arguably, the most prominent cellular pre-paid service is Tracfone. But did you know that Tracfone piggy-backs on the other cellular networks? My mother has Tracfone and her phone number is provided by US Cellular. AT&T offers a couple options, and there’s also Net10, among others. When pre-paid plans started becoming more popular, the major providers started offering more to bring back customers they lost, including reducing prices.

The problem with the plans, though, is that they are inconvenient. You have to remember to buy a card, then you have to go through the steps of redeeming the card with your provider, then (depending on the provider) you enter codes into the phone to actually have the minutes available. If this is no longer the case (I know it once was with Tracfone), I’d like to hear some feedback as to how it is now.

Tracfone, several years ago, offered a monthly automatic payment plan, which took away the need to remember to buy a card, but you still had codes to enter into the phone. And it only gave you so many minutes as well, so you were still limited or you still had to buy more, which meant buying a card.

But given all the complaints about the big providers, few seem to remember what cellular plans used to be like. The inadequate supply of plan minutes, meaning the constant risk of overages, especially once texting and mobile web were first introduced and started gaining popularity. Complain all you want, but things are improving. And while it seems that all of these companies are taking in excessive profits, it is what they do with the money that is more important, but most don’t look beyond the numbers.

And it is only through reinvestment of profits that allows things to improve. Price caps will reduce profits, which will in turn reduce the amount of investment can be made. Reduce the investment and you won’t see expansions or improvements to existing cellular networks as quickly.

Plus bear in mind that it is due to new innovations that what was previously expensive no longer is, and what is expensive now may not be in the future. And don’t expect anything regarding that to change at Internet-pace.

Published by Kenneth on 14 May 2009

MediaTomb and MySQL

Note: This information may be specific to SuSE and openSuSE

I mentioned in a previous post that I am setting up a media server with openSuse Linux as the OS. The media server software I’ve selected is MediaTomb, which is a great piece of software and very flexible. An interesting issue comes up though if you enable the init.d script.

In my setup, I am using MySQL as the data back-end instead of SQLite. This means that MediaTomb is now dependent upon MySQL at startup, however the default init.d script for MediaTomb does not have MySQL as a dependency. The init.d script must be manually edited in this instance to add the mysql dependency to the “Required-Start” line. After doing this and running insserv, everything is set up.

Just a quick heads up on this for anyone else who may have grown frustrated by this.

Published by Kenneth on 08 May 2009

digestIT 2004 and Windows 7

As many of you know, Microsoft released a public Release Candidate for their new Windows 7 operating system. And like any good developer, I downloaded the ISO image and promptly installed it inside a VMWare image – I use VMWare Server 1.0.9.

So on to the big question: will digestIT 2004 run on Windows 7? Yes it will.

I also recommend you download the RC and give it a try. Given the little bit I’ve played with it, I’ve not had any problems and it runs very well inside VMWare. And when you set up a VMWare configuration for Windows 7, use the Vista configuration.

Published by Kenneth on 08 May 2009

Assumptions of a Linux geek

TechRepublic: “10 ways to sell corporate on Linux

This article was written almost a year ago, but that doesn’t matter much, in my opinion, as its presented as arguments that can be made, regardless of when, and regardless of what may have changed. Many of his arguments have been ripped at in the comments section, especially in the case of this comment, but I’ll give my 2-cents here and voice my opinion. I should also point out that many of his arguments are nothing more than repetitions of countless other articles trying to also “sell” Linux in the corporate world.

Let’s start with this jewel, of which I’ve heard many variations over the years:

But the best thing about Linux applications is that they’re open source. If there’s something about the application that doesn’t suit your needs, you can change it. If you have the developers in house, more than likely they can adapt an application to do something perfectly suited for your company. Imagine taking a free application and reworking it so that it’s exactly the application you need (down to the look and feel).

This argument provides several implications, whether intended by the author or not. First is the implication that there are no open source applications for Windows, and any Windows user who’s browsed around the Internet knows this is not the case. OpenOffice is available for Windows, and so is GIMP. And of course there’s Mozilla as well. But Windows actually provides more freedom for software distribution over Linux because you’re not forced to make your application open source, unless you use a library with that kind of licensing model, but I digress.

Along with this is the implication that all applications for Linux are open source, another item that he’s pointed out in other blog posts is not true. There are plenty of closed-source and proprietary applications for Linux. I wonder what RMS says about that – seeing proprietary software, which he makes no secret about despising, running on what was supposed to be the OS of his open source movement.

Jack also makes the implication that software is easy to change. Yeah right. If so, I’d be making modifications to OpenOffice to make up for what it doesn’t provide. My biggest frustration with OpenOffice is the lack of postal bar code printing for envelopes. That is one reason, among others, I stick with Word. And why do I care about postal bar codes? Because postal bar codes allow for faster processing and sorting of mail, allowing the check for my car payment (I can’t pay it online right now without a hefty fee) to get where it needs to go quicker. If you want a way to save the USPS some money this year, start printing your envelopes with postal bar codes. Oh wait, except if you’re using OpenOffice, you can’t, not without fidgeting with barcode fonts and other pieces of information! But I digress again.

Anyway, changing software requires many things. I am a software engineer, and I’ve written and developed my own software, along with modifying open source software that is available. To change software, you first have to understand its source code. For some projects, this may not be very time consuming, for others (like OpenOffice or anything else large-scale), it’ll be very time consuming. You will require time to study it, and while documentation can help with some details, without engineering diagrams to go with it, time will be required on the part of the person or team that will be modifying the code. This task only becomes more difficult with the larger projects. How many people or companies are going to do this?

I remember one person in a ZDNet comment area say something similar to “Well if you want a feature that’s not in OpenOffice, then add it yourself.” I remember thinking to myself, “He obviously doesn’t write software”. There is not only modification to the code, but possibly modifications to the GUI. It’s a complicated situation that can be saved by finding software with the features you’re looking for.

“Imagine taking a free application and reworking it so it’s exactly the application you need.” Yeah, then imagine trying to justify the time spent to corporate when you sell them on a piece of software that falls short in many ways. This is where cost of ownership can really be offset by buying a package like Microsoft Office. How so?

Let’s say you have a team of 10 engineers who each make $50K per year. Imagine it takes them approximately 6 months to add a feature to your in-house copy of Open Office, going through the entire engineering process. This means you’ve essentially spent $250K on this one feature. If the engineers already have some understanding of the Open Office source code, then some money is saved, and if they don’t, then more money is probably spent. What if you need more than one feature added? See how it really starts adding up?

Looking at Jack’s profile on TechRepublic, I don’t see any mention of him writing software or being involved with software development, so his fumbling on this idea is not all too surprising, but it’s something he could’ve researched or at least pondered a little more before saying “you can just modify the software if it doesn’t suit your needs.” I’m afraid not, Jack.

And this is true even with other open-source packages. I use Windows Live Writer to write posts for this blog. I could’ve gone with an open-source tool like Zoundry Raven, but I decided on Live Writer because, after trying out a lot of different tools, I felt this one suited me the best. Sure, it’s not open source, but it’s a situation where I bypassed an open-source tool in favor of another freeware application. Sure, I could’ve modified Zoundry to add what I needed, but why when I found something else?

So going back to his first statement, “TCO is bunk”, I think I’ve pretty much shown that it’s more than bunk, depending on what you’re going to do. He is right in that most companies aren’t going to spend money training an IT staff — not when ITT Tech is putting out reasonably-qualified individuals who don’t need training, except in specific procedures relevant to the company and their environment.

Jack also says, “once Linux is up and running, you won’t be wasting precious time fixing, patching, or solving security issues.” Except he seems to forget that the applications running on the system might compromise the security of the system. Open source does not mean “secure by default”, otherwise Mozilla wouldn’t have to patch exploits and release security updates. Same with Apache.

Speaking of security, he also says “Administration is world wide”. Not if the firewall is configured to not allow it — something he doesn’t mention in his article. And why did he use an anecdote of the “Love Bug” virus (which was 7 years old at the time of his posting) to talk about the security of Linux?

First, any server should be properly configured for remote administration, whether it’s Linux, Windows, or whatever the case may be. You never know when you’re going to need to remote log-in to the server to correct a situation. And of course, make sure the remote access is properly secured at all points.

He also says, “Linux is constantly gaining traction.” I believe in politics and marketing this is referred to as “getting on the bandwagon before it rolls away and you’re left behind.” And it’s an argument as atrocious as much of what else he says.

Companies spending money on IT should evaluate their options, and allow time for all reasonable options to be evaluated. Linux might be one of them. Just because “70% of 420 polled business-technology professionals are using Linux” doesn’t mean you should as well. Evaluate your options — you’ll be happier if you did.

Oh and another thing: don’t trust polls, as they’re not scientific.

He also posits WINE as a way to run Windows applications on Linux… Okay he needs to redo his research. WINE is an emulation layer for Windows over the Linux kernel. Is it perfect? Far from, otherwise they wouldn’t maintain a compatibility list on their web site – they’d instead just say “everything works out of the box”. If you’re thinking of implementing WINE, be sure to check out the compatibility list. And the fact the WINE developers appear to be targeting only popular applications means you could be left in the dust for a long time, depending on what you need to run.

Hmm… I wonder how well digestIT 2004 would run under WINE? I’m sure the KCCI project wouldn’t have any issues, but digestIT 2004 might be a much different story.

Well I think that wraps up this post. I’ve used Linux myself, and it has its perks and it has its downfalls, in my opinion. Is it better than Windows? Not for what I do, and that’s the other thing as well. He presents this as “Linux can replace Windows.” Not in all situations, something he also admits in other blog posts.

Plus one place where Windows has always had the edge on Linux is with hardware. Sure Linux can resurrect older hardware, but Windows has always had the edge on the latest and greatest. Why? Because Windows developers can release closed-source drivers, helping to protect their R&D just a while longer.

Now to give Linux some good press in this article, I will say this: I am planning to put up a Linux server running a UPnP media server package on my home network. Onto it will also go Apache, MySQL, and other things. It’ll be no more capable than a Windows server would, but I don’t have any available Windows licenses to put onto the computer, so Linux, I know, will do the job just fine.

What distro will I use? Likely SuSE.

Published by Kenneth on 05 May 2009

Introductions

As this is a new blog, I feel introductions are in order. For those of you not familiar with Colony West Software, I am Kenneth Ballard, the proprietor of said company. I started Colony West Software back in 2001 under a different name now long forgotten. I’ve been putting out software and code libraries since then, though I haven’t released anything in quite a while, though that will hopefully be changing soon.

Colony West?

I will concede that Colony West is an unusual name, though there are plenty of other organizations and establishments that use Colony West as part of their name. So how’d I come up with it?

Well I used to live at Green Valley Apartments in West Des Moines, Iowa, now called Woodland West Condominiums. Across the street from the complex are two office buildings, one of which houses an FBI office. One is called Colony Park and the other is called Park West. I just took the names, removed Park, and voila, Colony West was born.

I registered the name with the Polk County Recorder at the end of 2005 as “Colony West Software Development”. It was re-registered with the State of Missouri in May 2009 as “Colony West Software Company”.

Current projects

Currently there are two projects under development at Colony West, one of which is prominently displayed on the company’s home page.

The Puzzle Pirates Trade Profiteer is a helper application for the online game Puzzle Pirates. The Trade Profiteer is a tool to assist with commodity trading in the game. Read more on the project’s web page.

The other project currently under active development will be announced when I’m close to releasing it.

The Future

So what does the future hold? Well, pretty much more software development. I’ll be posting updates here periodically, and I’ll also post other things here as well, such as commentaries on tech articles and the like.

So subscribe if you’d like or bookmark this blog to keep informed of what’s going on here at Colony West Software Company.