Amazon EC2

As this product was in the news just this past week, I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about the product the issue it had last week.  Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), is a web service that provides a “resizable compute capacity in the cloud” (see Amazon’s description).  What it does is that it allows users to rent virtual computers to run any computer application.  Services like about.me, Reddit, HootSuite, and FourSquare uses Amazon EC2 to run their web applications and were all unfortunate to be affected by last week’s outage of Amazon’s service.  This specific event, although rare, is telling of how reliance in cloud computing alone can be costly to your business.

Amazon EC2 as a product itself is too big to discuss.  What you need to know about it though is that its a service that allows you to rent virtual computers to run your web applications.  This service scales based on the demand of your web app.  For instance, if there are currently many users accessing your web application, EC2 should scale to allow for smooth operation.  Amazon’s pricing structure for this service largely depend on bandwidth, memory, and cpu usage.  Honestly, it’s all confusing.  But if you’d like to know more, check out Amazon’s site for this service.

What happened to Amazon EC2 starting Thursday morning until Friday (April 22nd), according to Amazon was that a networking glitch caused harddrives to automatically create back-ups of themselves which lead to storage capacity getting filled.  More importantly, what happened illustrated the necessity for a “disaster recovery” plan for Amazon, other similar bases, and more importantly your business that relies heavily on these types of services.

Update: Drop Box and Security

This is more or less an update to one of my previous post.  I’ve talked about cloud storage previously and how Dropbox is one of the many services that I personally use.  Recently, there’s been a couple of major information regarding Dropbox that were brought to its user’s attention.  First, according to Dropbox, although most of its employees are prohibited from accessing user data, a small number of employees must be able to do when required by law.  The second part of my previous statement (“when required by law”) prompted even more concern from Dropbox’s user base, which lead Dropbox to update its privacy policy.  The new privacy policy, which according to many is inline with the privacy policy of such companies like Google and Twitter, indicates that Dropbox, when required by law, with turn over user data as a form of compliance.

In light of these new findings.  I looked for other online storage solution that promised a little bit more security.  Wuala (www.wuala.com), is a secure online storage service that’s provides a little bit more security.  Encryption happens on your computer and therefore anything sent over to wuala is already encrypted.  The following video explains a little bit more about Wuala.  Check it out!

Wuala’s pricing structure ranges from free for 1 GB of storage to $289 for 250 GB of storage.  The free service does not include file versioning, backup, sync, and time travel.  Wuala is available for the Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux platforms and also comes with a mobile app.

Intuit’s GoPayment VS Square

When Square came out, even without using the product, I was already a big fan.  I mean, the idea itself was just that good and now a new competition is in town ready to go head to head with Square.  Intuit’s GoPayment, introduced very recently, is offering the same type of services that Square offers.

In this blog, I will break down the similarities and the differences between the two services.  Who you use is entirely up to you.

Cost of Hardware (card reader)

Zero dollars.  Nothing can beat that right?  Both Square and Intuit offer their card readers at no charge.  Intuit’s GoPayment is technically $29.95 but is free with application.  GoPayment also supports Mophie’s credit card reader but that’ll run you about 80 dollars.  Square’s card reader can be ordered from its website for free and soon enough, can be bought at the Apple Store online for 10 dollars and comes with a 10 dollar credit that can be applied to Square fees (so still zero dollars).

Hardware Supported

Square supports iOS devices (except 1st gen iPod touch and 1st gen (2G) iPhone) and most of the Android devices manufactured by HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Dell.  The minimum Android version required is 1.6.  Square’s card reader plugs in via the headphone jack (3.5 mm).  Intuit’s GoPayment has a list of devices supported here.

Pricing

Square has one simple pricing model.  The fee is 2.75% of every transaction unless the credit card number was entered manually, in which case the fee is 3.5% and a 15 cent transaction fee. Intuit has two pricing models: Low-Volume Plan and High-Volume Plan.  The low volume plan has no monthly service fee with a swipe rate of 2.70%, keyed rate of 3.70%, and a 15 cent transaction fee.  The High-Volume plan charges a $12.95 monthly service fee, swipe rate of 1.70%, keyed rate of 2.70%, and a 30 cent transaction fee.   Right off the bat, Intuit’s GoPayment is a little bit pricier than Square’s.

There you have it.  Both of these services work about the same way.  There are other considerations of course such as security and the type of support that both companies provide.


Mobile Web Sites Dos and Don’ts

In one of my previous post, I talked about general things to consider when building a web site for mobile devices.  For this entry, I’ve decided to do a simple list of dos and don’ts that you might consider when building the mobile version of your website.

DOs

  • Make it simple.  This can affect how readable your site is on the mobile platform and how fast it’ll load within a 3G or worse, Edge network.  This however, doesn’t mean that you should just plain black text and white background.  Use CSS to customize the look and feel of your web site.  With CSS you can achieve great look without resorting to heavy use of graphical images.
  • Mind the real estate.  Mobile phones have tiny screen with tiny resolution so design your mobile site with that in mind.  Users should not have to zoom their browsers (or do anything else) just so they can see your content.
  • Use javascript and css.  I mentioned CSS earlier but with javascript as well, you can get fancier and add simple to complex animations to your site. (as a note, I recommended this simply because of the rise of iOS and Android devices whose browsers support javascript and css)
  • Optimize for target devices.  There are a lot of devices with different screen sizes and resolutions.  This could be tricky but with the right design and right technology, it can be a breeze to do.
DON’Ts
  • Use your full fledge web site as your mobile web site.  Pretty self-explanatory I think but the main point here is that the user experience on a desktop or lap top is way different than the user experience on a mobile device.  In face, if you view your web site on a mobile device, you yourself will likely have an unpleasant experience.
  • Create a complicated navigation system.  A user should be able to get to your content with at the most two clicks.  With mobile devices, its best to use a menu system to navigate the site but can sometime create a deep navigation bread crumb.  If that ever becomes the case, make sure to rethink and prioritize your content.
  • Don’t use pop-ups or other features like frames.  Keep your design simple.  Popups are annoying even when using desktop computers and much more so when using mobile devices.  Get rid of them.  Frames are old and can only take precious real estate.

Apps: Providing a Rich User Experience

More and more so people are accessing information through their mobile devices and let’s face it, apps are changing the way people are interacting with information much like web-sites changed how people interacted with information just a few years back.  Web-sites–having them, isn’t passe by all means in the new “app” era, but rather, a new kid is on the block and he’s out to challenge the good old ways of how information is delivered to people.

Even popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter built mobile apps that are full-featured and in my mind are more fun to use than their web-based counterparts.  Both the Twitter and Facebook apps (for the iPhone for instance) uses Apple’s API which makes their apps not only consistent with the rest of the user interface of the phone but also user friendly and fun to use.

Apps can certainly provide a much richer user experience than the web by utilizing available functionality (hardware and software) on the phone.  For instance, apps can make of the GPS receiver available on most smart phones nowadays.  Twitter, Facebook, and Google app uses the GPS devices for “check-in” features.  Google more specifically uses the GPS for its mapping application.  Other hardware features such as the camera is also heavily used by a lot of apps.  The Google app uses the camera to allow people to take pictures of what they’re searching for.  Both the Bing and Google apps also uses the microphone for searching via voice instead of having to type up your search.

For many small businesses, having an app built and using all of the hardware and software feature may not always be what’s needed but if your business and your app can provide a rich user experience by using unique features available on most smart phones, then by all means… do so!

Web Site Considerations For Mobile Devices

Mobile devices bring new challenges to how small businesses deliver content to their consumers via their websites.  For one, the screen on most mobile devices, even at four inches, is considerably less real estate, that a typical web browser would have on a desktop or laptop computer.  Another is bandwidth, mobile devices although with 3G speed (provides decent web browsing experience) is typically hit and miss, that is you don’t get a consistent connection speed everywhere.  The biggest issue with mobile devices is, of course, the cap that most carriers have, which is around 5 Gb per month.  With that said, it is no longer enough to have  a web-site that’s meant to serve desktop web browsers.

The number thing to consider is how to present your content in a logical fashion, one that makes sense for a mobile device.   There are many subtle differences in how users interact with mobile devices versus with how they interact with desktop computers.  One great example is gestures.  Mobile devices uses gestures to understand the intent of the user, i.e. did the  user intent to click or scroll the page?  Desktop computers on the other hand interpret mouse clicks.  The idea of gestures or mouse clicks may sound that they have nothing to do with your web site design, but they do.  On a desktop computer, you can hover your mouse pointer on something and perhaps display information and perhaps you can do the same on a mobile device but the whether it makes sense (it doesn’t in my book), is another story.  The smaller real estate while keeping the same need to present information at a font size that’s readable is another challenge.  The best mobile websites that deal with this challenge the best uses tables where each row either leads up to other tables or pages that display information.

To me, the biggest concern is load time and how much bandwidth it’ll use (and these two are related).  Websites designed for mobile devices should load fast (to keep your end user from being frustrated) and this could mean foregoing lots of graphics and other content that could possibly prevent your site from being loaded as fast as possible.

With all of that said, yes.  In order to be able to serve both desktop users and mobile device users with your web content, you must be setup to serve both type of needs and luckily with existing technology and knowledgeable people helping you out, it’s not hard to do at all.

Google Apps For Business

Google, along with the hundreds of things it has to offer, also offers “Apps for Business.”  This solution is comprised of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Cloud Connect, Google Groups, Google Sites, and Google Video.  However, “Apps for Business” is not a free service from Google, rather it costs 50 dollars per user per year for an unlimited number of users (I really can’t see why they would limit the number of users).  Google offers a 90-day free trial for this product.

Here’s a breakdown of the different products that Google bundle into its “Apps for Business.”

Gmail – Most people are already familiar with Google’s Gmail service.  Gmail, is a web-based email service.  As part of the “Apps for Business” product suite, you can get 25 GB of email and IM storage.  Also, with Gmail. you get instant messaging as well as voice and video chat.

Calendar – Another familiar Google product.  With Google Calendar, sharing project calendars, appointments, and meetings is easy.  Calendars can also be published if a business so chooses to make some of its events public.

Google Docs – Web-based productivity suite for creating word documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.  With Google Docs, collaboration and sharing documents is easy.

Cloud Connect – Bring collaborative editing to the Microsoft Office suite.  To better understand how this product works, here’s a short video from Google.

Groups – Allows for sharing documents, calendars, folders, videos, etc.. Each member in a group can have specific control access to files and other content.

Sites – More or less a wiki and web-page creation tool.  It’s intended use for small businesses, is to allow them to create sites for collaboration and sharing of information.

Video – “Video channel for your business.”  Intended to be used by small businesses for internal training, announcements, and others.  Most small businesses probably won’t have a lot of use for this feature.

There you have it.  Google’s “Apps for Business.”  Personally, for even smaller small businesses, using the already available versions of these services for free might be the best way.