When all you have is a hammer

hammer

The old adage is that when the only tool you have is a hammer, you see everything as a nail! The idea is that you tend to use the tools you have and tend to see everything you do in terms of the tool(s) you have available. Bring that principle into the 21st century and web design.

Graphic designers see everything as a design issue; coders break out their editor of choice to fix any problem; those using WordPress see plugins as the panacea to every problem. The reality is that web design is both complex and multi-faceted. It requires graphic design, coding and third party help to make a killer web site. The problems come when you only have a subset of the skills/tools required – then the natural inclination is to use what you have to fix what you need. But hammers tend to mangle screws and the wrong tool can at the least make your web site more cumbersome than it should, at worst it can make an unholy mess of what should be a sleek and elegant design both on the surface and under the hood.

What do we need?

The greatest requirement with web design is to have someone who understands all the methodologies required and can objectively decide what is the best tool for each part of the job. As with IT in general, web design is fragmenting into ever more niche disciplines – and experts in those disciplines can struggle to see the bigger picture.

Talking to a young graphic designer recently his inclination was to find a graphical tool within WordPress to do the bits he couldn’t. He was looking for an ecosystem within an ecosystem. The fact that these exist in abundance proves the point. The problem is that the all encompassing theme or plugin becomes the cuckoo in the nest that overtakes the WordPress framework. The downside is that there is still a huge amount of work involved in learning the ecosystem, with much less benefit in that investment.

My advice? Start by understanding HTML, CSS, server side coding and databases. Then a grasp of graphic design principles and the use of CMS ecosystems such as WordPress can be employed to build an effective web site. Understand the principles before choosing your tools.

Remember that clean code behind the scenes is as important as that slick interface that everyone can see.

So, keep that hammer to hand, but you might also like to consider acquiring some screwdrivers, spanners, torque wrenches etc., or at least be aware of what they are and what they can do for you…

Google for Work – The Apps Show

Google for Work YouTube playlist

Whether you’re exploring the possibilities or have already started using Google for Work this playlist will help you to understand what Google for Work can do. One of the benefits of working in the cloud is the simple scalability, so it’s easy to get started with one or two users for a new business, while scaling effortlessly to the enterprise. Costs are low for the SME, and productivity is high, but a few lessons in what is possible always helps.

If you’re still not sure what Google for Work is, or how it might be a better solution for your business then take a look at some testimonials.

Considering a Chromebook

Chromebook

Many years ago it was an axiom that no-one got fired for buying IBM – they were the standard for desktop computing when the segment first emerged. With the ubiquitous presence of Microsoft operating systems on the IBM PC no-one even actively decided on buying MS-DOS and after that Microsoft Windows. The combination of IBM compatible PC and Microsoft Windows became the de-facto installation for every business user – it had the tools: word processing, spreadsheets, databases – all the things that the average business user required. As time has gone on the number of applications available on the Windows platform has expanded exponentially! Whatever you want to do there will be a Windows application to do it. This is still the case today, despite the creeping re-segmentation of the the personal computing market. What has changed?

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law suggests that processing power will double or the size of processor will half approximately every two years. This means that we can now pack into a phone, or a watch something that is much more powerful than the first IBM compatible PCs. The bespoke software development that we run is orders of magnitude more complex and more capable than those first applications. But, with this increase in power has come bloat – lazy design and programming, the assumption of ever increasing power has led to behemoth like applications that struggle to run on even the latest hardware.

Back to the lean model

Something has to give, and give it has. The arrival of the smart phone has brought with it the acceptance that small specifically targeted applications (called apps, appropriately enough) work fine for most people most of the time. Even in the business environment most users never progress beyond email, internet and word processing. Why purchase a hugely more capable machine and leave it to do very little?

Google have addressed this gap in the market with their Chromebooks. These devices in some ways go back to basics – the operating system is much smaller than Windows now is. It is also limited in the features available. But, in other ways it is the device for the 21st century. The Chromebook is designed to work over the internet. The Google Apps for Business user simply has to log on to a Chromebook device to have his or her complete environment available instantly. Although the list of apps is smaller it does 100% of what most people do, which, for the business owner is a compelling statistic.

What about those custom business applications that run on Windows?

Of course, the million dollar question is what to do about that custom business database that’s been developed in MS Access or Visual Basic – surely it won’t run on a Chromebook? No, it won’t, but as more and more business applications are being moved to an extranet model this isn’t a show stopper. Web development is becoming more accessible to more businesses. If it’s accessible from the web a Chromebook is perfect. Even many long term Windows only applications such as accounting packages are being re-imagined for the web. Apart from extremely processor or disk intensive applications all the common business needs and more are available in the cloud.

Installation and set up hell

One of the most trying events for most small businesses is the installation of a new PC. First of all you have to try and decide on a suitable specification that doesn’t cost the earth. Then you need to decide whether to purchase Microsoft Office. Then you need to rummage in your cupboards for the installation media for all those other business critical applications that were purchased years ago – and cross you fingers that they will work with the latest incarnation of Windows. Then there’s the download of drivers and the set up of email, and, and.. you get the picture?

Now consider purchasing a machine and giving it to the user. Ask them to log in with their existing details. On log in their entire environment is available instantly as it was before!

The costs and considerations

Of course everything has a down side. This sort of cloud computing depends on an internet connection. If this goes down your machine is limited in usefulness, but then so are most PCs in the same conditions. Take your Chromebook home or to an internet cafe and carry on.

There are also ongoing costs on a per user basis for this sort of set up. But Windows servers also cost per user, and you have to maintain the hardware yourself. Particularly for the SME the benefits of not having to deal with hardware or server maintenance itself outweighs the costs. In real terms cloud computing is much cheaper than getting your own kit. The economies of scale mean that you will receive a much more reliable service at a greatly lower price point than if you tried to do it yourself.

One thing to consider is the long term safety of your data. If it’s in the cloud then it’s not physically with you. But there are ways of getting backups of your data, and this is worth doing if there is data without which your business could not function. But remember that cloud providers have superior resources and working backup and restore processes – how many SMEs have even prepared a disaster recovery plan?

Conclusion

This isn’t a spur of the moment type of decision, but it is worth considering. If you have some cloud services, or have already signed up for Google Apps for Business then it’s incredibly easy to dip a toe in the water. If you’ve been using Windows for the last 20 years it may give you more food for thought, but look at your current IT licensing costs, email provider quality and fees and consider if a move to the cloud is a good match for your business. Whatever the size of your organisation it’s definitely time to consider a Chromebook.

Breaking the Barriers to Entry for Collaborative Tools

Cloud Services

Access to business class collaboration tools such as email, contacts and calendars used to cost an arm and a leg. First of all you needed to have a server domain structure in place, generally a couple of servers, then you would have to purchase Exchange Server for your collaboration services. These would all be housed and maintained on site, and if anything went down the whole site was offline.

Now, with cloud services the entry barrier: the cost of purchase, installation and setup of hardware and software is removed! The entry point for full business class collaboration tools is as simple as signing up to cloud services from your preferred provider.

With Google Apps for Business you can sign up as a one man band, or a small business with dozens or hundreds of staff. The setup process is straightforward and your business can be up and running in the time it takes to have your domain integrated with Google’s services.

For the small business this is a big win! We can work alongside corporates with a level playing field for collaboration, and it’s not just the communication staples of email, calendar and contacts, you can share and collaborate on documents too. For smaller businesses the ability to use these tools across multiple devices is an added bonus. Google Apps for Business even allows for device management from the admin panel.

If the perceived cost and complexity of getting business class collaboration is putting you off making the move, take a look at Google Apps for Business – the entry barriers have been broken and the TCO is more than affordable.