One browser to rule them all? Thoughts on Chrome OS

For about 48 hours last week, I thought there was a chance I was getting one of Google’s CR-48 notebook computers they’re giving away as part of the Chrome OS pilot.

The pilot program was announced while I was in San Francisco. Oh a whim from my hotel room, I filled out the form to join the lottery of folks willing to volunteer just to see what would happen. I’m pretty satisfied with my all-Mac life. I just crave the latest round of MacBook Airs for their battery life and light weight. The CR-48 would have been an improvement on my MacBook’s 3 hours of battery life and 4.5 lbs. on my back.

Didn’t think much about it until the CR-48 tracker came out. I entered my zip code and to my surprise there was a unit heading towards my town of approximately 12,000 people. Pretty good odds considering how rural this area is. Alas, on 12/15 the computer was delivered to its recipient and unless the UPS driver hid it under my porch or behind a bush, it wasn’t me. 

That little window of “what if” gave me time to read about Chrome OS and I quickly came to the realization that although I would gladly take a computer freely delivered on my doorstep, I’m not that disappointed.

I understand that this is a plain vanilla reference computer, so I’m not going to nit over the trackpad or lack of a caps lock key like others have. When Chrome OS devices are real and being sold to people for money, those kinds of things will be taken care of. Instead, I’m thinking bigger picture and for me, it comes down to 2 main sticking points:

Google customer support

Or lack thereof. I love Google stuff. But when there’s a problem that’s not the same problem that everyone else is having, getting one-on-one support from Google is a pipe dream. Figuring out unique issues is painful. Often infuriating. I will crowd-source the heck out of an issue. I’ll search Twitter. Search support forums. Post questions. But sometimes, you just need someone who can log in as a super user on your account and figure out why you are having a unique issue and help fix it. Will Google rely entirely on the hardware partners for this? I hope not.

A couple of weeks ago, my Carbonite backup account started stalling and failing, taking my CPU and RAM down as it beachball-of-death spun with 3 GB of data not backed up. After a bunch of back and forth emails with Carbonite tech support, trying everything they suggested with no success, I finally got someone on the phone who sat with me for 45 minutes. She knew what she was doing. She remotely logged in to my machine, and eventually figured out my overnight local SuperDuper backup was crossing streams with Carbonite. She helped me set SuperDuper to not try and backup Carbonite, and Carbonite to not backup SuperDuper. It’s been behaving flawlessly ever since. That’s how it should be done.

Google has the worst reputation for customer support. All you can do most of the time is either kvetch on Twitter or post to their help forums and wait for 50 other people to say “me too” until someone in-the-know comes along and addresses the issue. Or not. Apparently they promise to support CR-48 owners in the pilot program, but I’ve seen no evidence of what this actually means. It seems to me that with Android, Google relies on the carriers and device manufacturers to deliver support they won’t. Thankfully, their software is excellent and doesn’t need a lot of support, but that’s no excuse not to provide it.

Do I really want to have my CR-48 as my primary machine on a road trip and have an issue with no way to get actual help? Yes, I called AppleCare from my cell phone in a hotel room once. May never use live human support, but I’d like to know it’s an option I can trust in a pinch. Otherwise, I can play around with the CR-48, but I can’t really see if I can live with it. Which leads me to the second concern…

One browser can’t quite rule them all

Even though I do use a lot of desktop tools on my iMac, I can go for long stretches living only online from my MacBook or iPhone. Worst comes to worst, I use LogMeIn to remotely control my iMac and run desktop applications. If anyone can make a cloud-only computer work, it’s me. I haven’t used a desktop email client in years. If I’m not online, there isn’t much I can do at a keyboard. I’m perfect for this kind of computer.

Fact is, I can live my entire computer life in a browser…the challenge is that I can’t live my entire computer life in ONE browser.

Chrome is fantastic. It’s my default browser on all my Macs and has been for quite some time. But… Convio’s admin site doesn’t work 100% in Chrome, so when I have to edit an email in WYSIWYG mode I have to use Firefox. Parts of Salesforce are still a little iffy in Chrome. DreamTeam, the application from within Salesforce that we use for project management (for the time being) works best in Safari of all the Mac browsers. LogMeIn works better from Firefox or Safari than Chrome. Thank goodness we are no longer using ADP for payroll, otherwise I’d have to do that in Internet Explorer. It’s not uncommon for me to have at least 2 browsers open at any one time. And a few Chrome Incognito windows open so I can be logged in to different sessions/gApps accounts at once. If Chrome OS is going to tie me to one Google account, how can I get things done the way I’m used to? Or are you only meant to check Facebook, email and play simple games with this thing?

Right now Chrome OS and the CR-48 are the new shiny. I’m as curious as anyone who has an early adopter spirit. It will be interesting to see what happens come January when folks who got these first round units get over the initial tinker mode and get down to day-to-day business.

A computer that is designed to only be online is one thing…a computer that is only a single browser is something else. 

Can Google pull it off? I’m not sure. 

What do you think?

Converting GoToMeeting recording to something you can actually use

After trying more webinar/meeting tools than I can possibly count, I'm pretty happy with Citrix GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar.

As a nonprofit registered with TechSoup, you can get a full year of the complete GoToWebinar package for just $94 a year. Regular price: $4,788/year. Killer.

At the Coalition, we're getting our money's worth. We use it for internal meetings all the time (GoToWebinar includes GoToMeeting). Every other month or so we host a webinar on topics of patient interest, and every month we host a webinar on topics of advocate interest.

We've got it down to a science. I typically play the producer role… opening the room at the right time, filtering questions, and managing the recording so we have a file we can post afterwards.

I record the webinar from my VMWare Fusion Windows 7 virtual machine, upload the file to our Vimeo Plus account, embed back on our website. Takes a few minutes after the end of the webinar and I call it a day. Pretty simple.

Here's where Citrix gets a little silly. 

You can only record webinars from the PC version of their control panel. All well and good. But in addition, the default setting of their control panel gives you a file that is essentially useless. Sure, you can play it back from a PC but only if you have GoToMeeting installed on the computer which includes a special codec. You can't post the file to any web service or play it back on a Mac…unless you specifically go to in to preferences before the recording begins and toggle a little button which converts the final file into a more standard video file.

Gtmprefs

Last week, we hosted a webinar with special guest Dr. Henry Lynch. Dr. Lynch is a pioneer in genetic cancer research. We were fortunate to have him join us. Extra important that the archive file of the webinar be ready and right.

Unfortunately, I was in San Francisco for Dreamforce at the time of the webinar so a colleague took my producing role. We had a technical run-through a few days before, and we were all confident she knew what buttons to push. She has filled in for me before, so I didn't even think of having her double check her GoToMeeting preferences to make sure that the stupid little button was in the correct position for the recording.

It wasn't. Apparently she reinstalled GoToMeeting at some point and the default was set back. Citrix: for the love of all that is holy, make your default setting the one that makes a file widely usable, not a PC-only paperweight. So what if it adds to processing time to wait for file conversion at the end?

I got the file the next day and I couldn't do a thing with it. Playback was audio-only. Couldn't upload it anywhere. 

Upon my return I Googled, eventually finding a site that explained how to force the re-encoding of a GoToMeeting webinar using the Windows command line. That didn't work, as the trick posted only seemed to apply to an earlier GTM version. Same with another tip to use HandBrake. No can do. Other folks suggested replaying the file through Camtasia, but I wasn't going to buy a $300 piece of software for this. A call to GoToMeeting support didn't gain much more than sympathy. I got a little testy at his gentle suggest for better user training…better user training doesn't replace intelligent default settings. 

Finally found a blog site owned by a Citrix employee that had the answer that worked. For the record, the GTM support person sent me an email with similar information, but it lacked some key steps that the site completes.

It involves two free applications. This all has to be done from a PC, so if your only workspace is a Mac you may be out of luck unless someone has suggestions on freebie Mac tools that do similar functions.

First, Microsoft Expression Encoder 3 to get a workable AVI file without the proprietary GoToMeeting codec. About 30 minutes to encode the hour-long file. Even though Vimeo's site says that it takes AVI files, this file wouldn't import either.

Invalid

So on to the second application, Any Video Converter. This application takes the file created by free version of Expression Encoder and converts it to other video formats. Be careful when installing to skip over the crapware prompts. No, I don't want a Bing toolbar, but thanks for asking. 

End result after this 10-20 minute process is a .flv file. I tried creating a .mp4 file for Vimeo, but something must have been set incorrectly and the file didn't complete correctly. Will try again at some point as I'd ultimately like to have all our files in one place. Wish I understood codecs better.

Flash video is fine, but Vimeo doesn't accept Flash video. No way. No how. Don't even ask.

What to do? The file is too long for YouTube. Finally, I remembered that Box.net, where we have a business account, not only has the ability to stream video uploads and embed on sites for streaming playback, they only take Flash video files. Sold! 

Uploadedfile

And that is how I got a GoToMeeting encoded file to our website in about 40 steps, a lot of Googling and a tech support call. 

Lesson of the day: before recording a GoToWebinar meeting, double check that @#@$% setting in Preferences.

Thoughts on Chatter while the Kool-Aid flows at Dreamforce

It’s the beginning of Day 2 at Dreamforce, the gigantic Salesforce user conference in San Francisco. Instead of joining 15,000 or so folks for the second morning keynote, I’m sitting in my hotel room watching the keynote stream on my laptop. I didn’t get much out of yesterday’s keynote. Very much “preaching to the cloud” and not a lot of meat for non-developer, non-sales folks like me. 

As the subject line says, I want to focus in this blog post on Chatter. If you are anywhere in the Salesforce orbit, for the last year Salesforce has been all about Chatter. Salesforce employees and evangelists would have you believe that Chatter can directly bring about world peace. I wish they were as excited about rollup summaries for lookup fields.

If you’re interested in Salesforce stuff and you just landed from your planet, Chatter is like Facebook in your corporate CRM/database. You can post status updates, leave comments on other people’s profile (think: wall). Activities and events within data objects can automatically leave Chatter posts. 

Chatteer

I wasn’t enthused about Chatter from the start. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great for other organizations. If an org has 5,000 employees, Chatter is a fantastic way for folks from one side of the building to keep up with what’s happening on the other side. If a company is trying to land that $500K deal, Chatter can help the sales rep gather intelligence to make it happen. The possibilities are endless. I get that. But I’m not looking for possibilities, I’m looking for solutions.

I turned Chatter on at Colorectal Cancer Coalition months ago, and the reaction from my colleagues was one big disinterested shrug. No one uses it. And I’m not pushing it until I figure out for myself exactly which, if any, pain this relieves. From time to time I will pull up a user profile to monitor what folks are doing in Salesforce since I have feeds turned on for Accounts and Opportunities, but that’s about it.

We have a couple of email listservs on Google Groups of our top-tier advocates that we’ve been interested in migrating to an online community. It had been suggested that Chatter might be a good solution, now that Salesforce is offering Chatter Free and will be introducing Chatter.com for broader deployment next year. These new offerings bring Chatter outside an org without additional cost. 

A few months ago, Salesforce built a Dreamforce app for attendees. There’s a big Chatter component to it. Being the type that doesn’t need to be asked twice to be social online, and given that I want to get a handle on what Chatter is really like, I dove in. I followed people. I left status updates. I posted on-topic comments in Groups and posted to profiles. I got the mobile app. In fact, the app includes “Chattalytics” which shows the top 50 influencers out of 15,000 or so folks in the Dreamforce app. Look who’s currently sitting at #34. 

Influencer

So I have a much better picture of Chatter than I did before.

My thoughts, keeping in mind that Salesforce is evolving this frequently:

It’s fun. Think about what you love about Twitter or Facebook, and it’s mostly all here. It’s real-time and easy and personal. There are folks who have come up to meet me here at Dreamforce that I “met” first in Chatter. I’m definitely having a better experience at Dreamforce this year thanks to Chatter. I can see how our top volunteers can use this to connect and collaborate with each other. Unfortunately, that’s where my praise ends. For now.

It’s a fire hose. Once you follow someone, you get everything in your feed. Yes, there are filters on the sidebar which help somewhat. If I follow John Smith, I will get on my feed every post that anyone else leaves on John Smith’s profile, regardless of whether I follow those folks or not. Imagine if you follow a celebrity on Twitter and your feed contains every @mention sent about him/her. Yikes.

It’s awkward to navigate. While everything flows to the home feed, there’s only room for maybe 3 updates at a time on the screen regardless of browser size or monitor resolution. I have a large monitor at home, but my main chatter feed doesn’t expand to fill my browser window. It doesn’t auto-update. I have to keep clicking “Show Older” and I haven’t figured out how to search for a specific update that appeared on my profile at some point. I find myself clicking between “Home” “Profile” “Chatter” and “Groups,” all which look similar but have different content. I’m very comfortable in these interfaces. But in Chatter I often find myself turned around. There are desktop and mobile Chatter tools that probably make this a bit easier. The UI needs serious attention before I would dream of rolling this out beyond our staffers.

It’s all or nothing. Chatter is either on or off. If you enable email notifications for follow up comments (on by default), you get bombarded with email messages on every post you leave a comment. There are some updates from some people that I want to know in email if there’s follow up. There are other updates that I highly regret that I posted anything in the first place. I want more granular control as both an administrator and an end user.

It’s too branded to Salesforce. Yes, we can stick a logo in the upper left hand corner. But if I’m going to build a home for our active volunteers to collaborate with each other around our cause, it has to be entirely from/about us. No Salesforce language at the bottom of every email. We need our own colors and fonts. We’ll see what happens when Chatter.com is fully up and running next year, but this might be a deal-breaker for me in rolling this out to our volunteers.

It needs to get over itself and be where the people are. As much as I enjoy the Dreamforce app, it’s yet another username and login I have to manage. For folks who live in their Salesforce orgs, it’s probably fine. But if this is going to go viral, it has to be baked in to where folks are already communicating. And it has to be easy for me, as a non-coding admin, to deploy this for my org where the people are (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.) without limiting them to just that network. Folks who care about us also care about 1000 other things and other organizations. They aren’t just on Facebook, or just on Twitter. But if they’re there, we want to be there too without dividing ourselves into separate networks. We can make a white-label silo social network right now. We don’t need Chatter for that.

I’m looking forward to revisiting this post over the next year or so to see how my opinions evolve. What do you think? What about the Chatter Kool-Aid am I still missing?