Monday, October 20, 2008

Mac Guy on the Road

My "MBP" on the job in a Hong Kong hotel today

So it's been three months since I purchased my Macbook Pro (used, on Ebay, because I'm cheap). Many of my PC friends were wary of my early enthusiasm, and several said "Yeah, well, it's a new toy right now, but talk to me in two months." Three months later I'm still a Mac guy, so I wanted to share some updates on my Apple experience thus far.

First, the things I don't like - and it's a short list. I traveled to the UK earlier this month, and realized before boarding my flight at ATL that I'd forgotten to bring my power adapter. No worries I thought, I'll just pick one up somewhere. Several electronics stores in Hartsfield sold "universal" notebook power supplies - but none worked with any Apple notebook. No worries, my hotel in Liverpool had three large electronics stores within walking distance - but none of them had Mac power adapters either, even though at least one sold Mac notebooks! I was very fortunate that Liverpool has an Apple store, so I spent half my first day figuring out how to get there so I could get my replacement power cord. (the local Computer Troubleshooter in Liverpool graciously offered to bring me one, but searching for an Apple store seemed as good a way as any to explore the city so I decided to go on my own). Similarly becuase the Macbook uses the DVI port instead of VGA, I have to bring two adapters with me if I expect to plus into a projector somewhere. (Two because I have a history of losing one and need a backup just in case).

Other things that I don't like: no SD card slot (but I have a USB/SD card reader that I can bring with me). Battery life is only about 2 hours per battery for me, and you can't hot-swap the batteries on an airplane (I carry 3 batteries with me for long trips, but I have to Sleep the notebook before swapping). And occasionally my Windows environment (I run Windows on the Mac simultaneously with the Mac OS using VMWare Fusion, mostly so I can use Outlook) loses sound for some reason.

So that's the bad list - but there's a much, much longer list of things that I love. I haven't had a crash or lock-up except once, whereas my old PC notebook used to hang at least 2 or 3 times a week (in fairness to the PC, I tend to run a LOT of unusual applications, so having occasional crashes doesn't surprise me). Most operations are faster than they were on my PC, even though this is a 2.16GHz Core2 Duo and my PC was a 2.2GHz machine. The wireless network connects faster, which doesn't sound like much but if you're trying to download your emails during a 10 minute airport layover, that's helpful. The backlit keyboard is surprisingly useful in dark hotel rooms (like as I'm typing this right now).

The two things I like the most right now are VMWare Fusion, and Front Row. VMWare Fusion lets me run my Windows environment inside my Mac environment, which is necessary for me since many applications I use (including Microsoft Outlook) only work in a Windows environment. VMWare Fusion gives me that ability, and more than that it allows for near-seamless file sharing between the Mac and PC sides of the system (whereas in the old days you used to require a translation program of some kind to let one OS see files on the other). So I have one "Desktop" and one "Documents" folder, and both OS'es see them the same. Cut & Paste also works between the OSes, which is amazing and helpful.

Front Row is the newest thing I've started using. It's integrated with iTunes, so that any music or video you have purchased or ripped into your iTunes library is available in Front Row. By using the Mac Remote Control (a tiny little thing) I can choose to listen to specific music or watch specific TV shows or movies - which is really handy. For example when I was in the UK I missed the season premiere of "The Office" back home, so I was able to download it on iTunes and watch it from my hotel bed using the Mac Remote. I've also used it to watch movies during long flights, or to listen to music while getting dressed in the morning. Sure, there are similar programs in the PC world, but this one is built into the Mac OS and the Mac hardware, and it just works.

So, so far my "Mac enthusiasm" shows no signs of abating. More and more we see our small business clients migrating to the Mac environment, and now that I've "drunk the koolaid" I can see why. For businesses where most of their work is web-based, or based on Microsoft Office, you can likely accomplish 99% of your work in the Mac, making it a valid option for businesspeople today. And for those who still need Windows apps, programs like VMWare Fusion make that an easy option too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Everyone Should Buy a Ford Flex

In my post yesterday I talked about how the current economic situation is affecting Computer Troubleshooters in general - today I want to talk about one way I've used the current downturn to my advantage, by posting a review of my new Ford Flex.

To provide some background - I was not looking for a new car. My CT-wrapped Subaru Baja had served me well and was paid off. It was also one of the best cars I've ever owned. BUT, in just the month of September my Baja was stolen, recovered, wrecked (while parked), and then erroneously impounded by the Dekalb County police who apparently forgot to note in their database that it was no longer stolen. When it was taken the first time I started looking around to see what I might want to replace it with, and came across the Ford Flex. After the wreck and the impounding I started to think that maybe someone was trying to tell me it's time for a new car after all.

Then I read stories about how automakers have been hard hit by the recent economic conditions. Dozens of dealerships around Atlanta have closed, including the Subaru dealership near me. To try and stimulate sales many manufacturers are offering some pretty strong incentives to potential buyers, especially those with good credit. I got an email from a local Ford dealer offering me $4000 under dealer invoice on a new Ford Flex, plus they gave me full trade-in value for my Subaru even though it was wrapped and wrecked, plus they gave me some service incentives as well to help a friend whose having some car troubles. All in all it was a deal I couldn't pass up. If you're in the market for a car, now is a REALLY good time to go shopping because there are some great deals to be had.

So now I'm the proud owner of a Ford Flex, and honestly it's the best car I've ever owned. It's incredibly comfortable - the giant leather seats have all kinds of adjustments and even seat warmers (not really needed here in Georgia but still nice). The headrests could use more adjustment options, and as other reviews have pointed out it would be nice if the steering wheel telescoped, but having adjustable pedals helps. My Flex also has "egress assist", which means when I pull the key out the driver's seat slides back automatically to make it easier to get out, and when I put the key in the seat moves forward back to it's memorized position. This is slightly disturbing since for a brief second I always imagine myself in the trash compactor scene in Star Wars as the seat pushes me towards the steering wheel, but overall it's a nice feature.

For a gadget lover the Flex has everything you could ever want. Seperate climate controls for the driver, passenger, and rear seats. Lots of power ports everywhere you can think of, plus an AC outlet built into the center console. There's even a USB port inside the center console which can charge a USB device as well as connecting any MP3 player into the sound system. And speaking of the sound system - I got the 10-speaker Sony-built system with Microsoft Sync technology, and it's really amazing. I wasn't sure what to expect of Sync, but the voice recognition is remarkably accurate even when I ask it to call friends with hard-to-spell names (it connects to my cell phone whenever its' within Bluetooth range), and the sound quality is fantastic. There are almost too many options in the sound system (I don't know how I'm going to find time to fill all 30 presets for the AM/FM radio, or the other 30 presets for the Sirius satellite radio). And the onboard computer lets me keep track of things like my average miles per gallon (which is only around 18 for me so far, but I only drive about 10 miles a day and through a lot of stops, so I expect it will get closer to the advertised 24mpg when I'm taking longer road trips). It's the most fuel-efficient vehicle of it's size, but you'd never know it by how powerful and responsive the engine feels.

Gadgets are great, but the Flex really shines in style and functionality. I've had the car for 10 days and already several people have stopped me at traffic lights or parking lots to ask me about it. I also got a chance to test the cargo-friendly fold-flat seats when I took some tables to a festival this past weekend, but I'm really looking forward to utilizing all 7 seats the next time I drive for a youth event at church.

So if you're in the market for a cool, functional vehicle that can carry a large family or a lot of customer computers, take a look at the Ford Flex. Besides getting a great car at a great price, you'll also be helping your local car dealers stay in business during these challenging times, which is good for your local community and your local economy too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

CT and the Economic Crisis

A popular question I get these days is "So how is the economic crisis affecting Computer Troubleshooters?". Interestingly I get this question mostly from strangers - someone in the elevator who sees the logo on my shirt, for example.

First of all let me share this site from Money Magazine which I think does the best job of summing up how the current financial situation is affecting most Americans. The truth is that despite the gloom and doom in the headlines every day, most Americans are not directly affected by the financial meltdown. True, many retirement funds (including my parent's) have been diminished, and some people are seeing a direct impact on their personal finances: I heard this week from a college-age friend who was laid off from his restaurant job, and from another friend who owns a handyman business and who told me he's seeing less work right now. But most of us are OK.

Like every business I suppose CT is affected by the economic crisis, but not always in the ways you would expect. We've seen isolated incidents of collections problems, mainly with small business clients in the home building or auto sales industries. At least three CT's have had to close because the owner was affected by some poor decisions in the real estate market (these were mostly in southern California and Arizona). But other than that, business appears to be booming for many of us.

Take our small business clients. Even though most small businesses aren't directly affected by the economic situation, there is some anxiety in the marketplace. This may manifest itself in a reluctance to increase expenses, either for large-ticket purchases or for hiring new staff. But for us, as the "IT Department for Small Business" [tm] this just means that those same businesses are more likely to incur higher maintenance costs as they keep older servers & workstations in service longer, and it means they're more interested in looking at ways to work more efficiently with a smaller staff (which is right up our technological alley, so to speak). With all the uncertainty in the market small businesses are also more eager to look for ways to reduce and stabilize their IT budget, which is exactly what our B.E.S.T. managed services program is designed to do. And we've done well in ramping up services this year that small business clients find most helpful during recessionary times - services to help them improve their productivity and their profits through better use of technology such as our new VoIP and Search Engine Marketing services.

We're even taking that one step furthur by expanding our HaaS (Hardware-as-a-Service) offerings this fall. HaaS allows a small business to get the latest & greatest hardware & software, plus a complete Proactive service plan, for one low monthly fee. A typical example would be a small business who gets a a new Dell Small Business Server, four new state-of-the-art workstations, all fully loaded with the latest Microsoft Office, plus our premium data backup package. If purchased up front that could approach $10,000, plus $520/month for our total service package. For a small business worried about conserving capital, that's a lot of money. But in a HaaS offering we could do the whole thing for no money up front and around $800/month. Considering that this includes everything they'll ever spend to cover any normal IT problem (i.e. no surprise bills in the future), that's a bargain -and so far it's proving to be very popular with our small business clients.

As an interesting side note I was talking with one of our funding partners for the HaaS program last week I asked him the same question everyone asks me - "How's the economic situation affecting YOUR business?". Thinking that if it affected anyone I knew, surely it would be affecting a financial guy. But he said it really wasn't - he said that 80% of his funding sources were completely unaffected by the larger financial meltdown, and even for the ones who were it was only a minor blip. Approval rates and interest rates are comparable to what they were a year ago. I guess that's the nice part about working in the world of small business - we're a lot more stable than some other businesses.

There are two other areas besides our core small business clients where CT could be affected: our residential business, and franchise expansion. What we're seeing, both internally and from external news reports, is a "nesting" pattern among our residential customers. This means they're pulling back from external expenses, like expensive vacations or new car purchases or even going to the movies, but they're investing in their home entertainment experiences. And for most residential customers, "home entertainment" is becoming more PC-oriented. In my own living room I've got a PC connected to my HDTV so I can watch shows from, and apparently I'm not the only one. Residential customers are spending more on their home technology, and that's good for us in general but especially good for our H.O.S.T. managed services plans - the industry's only managed service plans for home technology.

And franchise recruiting is going well - we've added 5 new US locations in the last 8 weeks, plus locations in Australia, Canada, the UK, and South Africa. During times like these more people feel uncomfortable in the corporate world and look to "take control of their own destiny" through self-employment, so CT benefits from that as well. True some have more trouble getting financing, and those looking to use our 401k conversion program may be less likely to tap into their retirement funds if the funds are 22% lower than they were last month thanks to the stock market pull-back. But we're expanding our internal financing options to compensate, and I expect our growth will continue to improve.

So as strange as it sounds, the economic crisis has been pretty good for Computer Troubleshooters so far. Granted there are always exceptions and not everyone is doing as well as we'd like them to, but overall things are good and improving. This looks like it will be my third recession as a small technology business owner, and so I can tell you from my past experience that there are good things that come from a recession. As a business owner you may find that things like office space and some services are cheaper because of the reduced demand. Gas prices are coming down, which for a business that does a lot of our work at the customer's location is important. And finding good employees, particularly right now if you're looking for salespeople, general administrative help, or level 1 technicians, can be easier and less expensive than it would have been two years ago. It's also a time when some of our weaker competitors (usually the poor-quality, low-price ones) will close down, leaving more potential clients for us.

It's not all doom and gloom, no matter what the headlines say. I know there are people affected by the economy today, including friends of mine. But I believe very strongly that as business owners we have a responsibility to be successful and profitable, so that we can add value to our employees, our clients, and our communities. And everything I see tells me that Computer Troubleshooters is doing very well, and will continue to be successful for the forseeable future.