Windows 10 – Removing Avast Barnacle-Ware

I had been a loyal Avast Antivirus customer for years with a paid license for 10 machines. However, in the last year or so I had become aware that Windows Defender (free with Microsoft Windows 10) does an excellent job of protecting against malware. Even better, Windows Defender is free. Best of all? Windows Defender does not constantly bombard you with annoying sales popups. I had become quite irritated with Avast. I can sort of understand the free version of something pushing a few advertisements, but the paid version?! Once I pay for something I expect it to just work and otherwise consume as little of my attention as possible.

Picture shows annoying popup from Avast still there after uninstalling the product.

Avast Barnacle-Ware

As such, while recently upgrading machines to Windows 10 (which I am pretty pleased with so far) I had been uninstalling Avast and simply checking to see that Windows Defender was configured and running. But what was this!? On two such machines, I was still getting an aggressive sales popup after fully uninstalling the product!

For me, this behavior is definitely ethically beyond the pale! When I tell a software package to uninstall itself, I expect it to do just that. Software companies that leaves hidden barnacles on my system that continue to pester me to buy stuff after I have asked them to uninstall are definitely “Malware”. Even worse, when I went to the usual places, such as the Control Panel list of software applications, there were no remaining places that I could ask it to uninstall this unwanted harassment barnacle. Looking in Program Files there was no “Avast” directory. They definitely were trying to make it as hard as possible to find and remove this unwanted malware.

Shows how to find file location

Use Task Manager to Find Barnacle’s File Location

The solution was to use Task Manager. Leaving the barnacle window open, I did Ctrl+Alt+Del and started Task Manager. It was easy to find the process for the popup window. Right clicking on that line, I selected “Open file location”

Picture shows hidden Avast Directory

Barnacle-Ware Buried in Common Files

There it was. In order to make the barnacle-ware hard to find, Avast hid it under Common Files in a cryptically named “AV” directory. The solution was simply to delete this directory.

Note that I had this problem on two machines. On one of them I also went into the registry editor and chased down all the occurrences of “Avast” in the registry. This process was tedious because Avast leaves garbage all over the registry. On the other machine I just deleted the offending directory. I have not observed any difference in behavior between the two machines. It should be sufficient to delete the directory containing the Avast barnacle-ware. No need to wade through the registry deleting leftover garbage registry keys.

Ransomware – Air Gap Security for the Little Guy

Picture shows a ransom note.

Ransomware – A public service provided by Eastern European thugs

Nefarious eastern European crime gangs taking over your personal computers and holding them for ransom? A frightening threat! What is a small business owner to do? You don’t have a staff of hundreds of IT security experts sitting in a darkened command center protecting your business. In fact, chances are that your office is pretty small, just a handful of PCs. And that large IT security staff? It’s you! That is, it’s you when you aren’t busy selling your product, arguing with the bank, providing psychotherapy to your small team of employees, trying to figure out the accounting software, and otherwise running your business.

In this post, I will outline a simple approach to hardening up your little business to these very real threats. There will be a small initial investment in hardware and software initially as well as a little time to set up. However, once you are setup, there will be no recurring costs and twenty minutes or so once a week should be adequate for you to have a solid defense against this sort of attack.

Executive Summary

  1. Make sure you have a solid antivirus package installed everywhere.
  2. Use a cloud service like DropBox or SpiderOak to store your data files.
  3. By an external USB hard disk for every PC or Mac you own.
  4. Buy R-Drive Image for the PCs and SuperDuper! for the Macs.
  5. Backup each machine to its dedicated USB hard disk once per week.
  6. Unplug the USB hard disk after each backup.

Antivirus Software

If you are trying to run a small business without any antivirus software installed on your personal computers, you need to have your head examined.

The good news is that there are a lot of choices and there is a lot of high quality review information available. Here is a good recent review: PC Magazine 2015 Ratings

Annoying Avast popup (my computer is NOT running slow)

Annoying Avast popup (my computer is NOT running slowly)

At Asatte Press, we have been using Avast Internet Security and have been reasonably satisfied with it. However, recently the Avast team has been adding more and more annoying popups that try to sell you expensive upgrades. For me these intrusive popups are a sign that they are losing touch with their customers’ needs. That is, the three key requirements for an Antivirus program are that it be:

  1. Effective
  2. Cheap
  3. Unobtrusive

I have been pleased with Avast on points (1) and (2) but they are starting to fail on point (3). When our current licenses expire, we may evaluate alternatives.

In any case, I offer the following tips:

  1. If you have Mac computers, your Antivirus vendor needs to offer a solution for Macs. (Macs are not immune to attack)
  2. If you have several computers, you can probably get a better price by buying a quantity license.
  3. Almost all vendors offer multiple levels of features. You don’t need the premium, all-singing, all-dancing version. The cheapest version or perhaps one up from the bottom is usually sufficient.
  4. iOS and Android devices are a grey area. The problem is not nearly as developed as the problem with PC software. However, if you have these sorts of devices (who doesn’t?) you should look for a Antivirus vendor that at least has a plan to have something for these platforms.

Solution Part 1:  AntiVirus – Pick an AntiVirus vendor. Buy a bulk license. Deploy the AntiVirus to ALL of your devices, not just to your Windows PCs.

Cloud Data Storage

Use cloud storage. A good cloud storage solution is incredibly convenient. You just edit and save your files on machine A. You then walk over to machine B. By the time you get there, the updated version is on machine B. No fuss. No muss. Not only is this function convenient, it also makes you almost completely invulnerable to the loss of a machine, whether the machine is lost to a hardware failure, lost when your office building burns down, or lost to a ransomware attack.

If you are not very technical, I recommend DropBox. It is superbly easy to install and very effective. You can do quite a bit with their free version and do almost anything you can imagine with their paid version.

If you are a bit more technical and you are a bit more concerned about security, you may want to consider SpiderOak. While DropBox does encrypt your files on its server, it has a major flaw in its security concept: DropBox creates the encryption keys and stores them on its servers. This approach is basically like putting a spare key to your front door under the doormat. As soon as any government agency gets curious, they can simply demand that DropBox unlock the data for them to feast on. I am not too worried about the out-of-control government agency scenario.  The bigger risk is that the eastern European thugs might breach DropBox’s defenses and gain access to the server full of encryption keys. At that point, you there would be nothing between them and your data.

SpiderOak solves this problem with a different implementation approach: you make up the encryption key (not them) and that key never leaves your PC. When the out-of-control government agency or eastern European thug group arrives, there is no key anywhere on SpiderOak’s system. They only thing they can get access to is mountains of encrypted data.

We are currently using SpiderOak and DropBox in parallel. SpiderOak is a much smaller operation and they have had one or two hiccups, but generally it seems to perform about as well as DropBox and it is a more secure architecture.

One thing to be careful of is barnacle cloud services. Almost all the big players out there are trying to prompt you to install things like iCloud or Windows Skydrive in hopes that they will be able to push DropBox out of your life . Don’t let them do it. Each additional cloud service that you install – especially ones like iCloud that want to vacuum up everything on your device – introduces an additional level of security risk. Only install cloud services that you plan to use regularly and pay attention to.

Solution Part 2:  Cloud Data Storage – Pick a cloud storage vendor and store all your documents and data in the cloud. Don’t let additional barnacle cloud services install themselves if you don’t actually plan to use them.

The Basic “Air Gap” Approach

The picture shows an external USB harddrive unplugged sitting on top of a PC

‘Air Gap’ Security Demystified – External USB Drives

So the eastern European thugs have encrypted your hard disk? No problem, we will just restore the computer from the backup.

Or will we?

Making regular backups of computers are one of those things like flossing your teeth, pasting pictures into photo albums, writing thank you notes, and eating lots of vegetables…that everyone knows that they SHOULD do…but that a lot of regular folks somehow never quite get around to.

Well, those anal-retentive people like me who have figured out how to work regular computer backups into the schedule (I am getting much better about the vegetables…) have long since figured out that they way to make it regular is to make it painless. As such, all of our PCs at Asatte Press have been purpose-built with redundant hard disks. Backup is a snap. Configure the backup utility to point to the spare hard disk and press “Go” every now and then.

Unfortunately, the eastern European thugs have foreseen this eventuality. Not only do their ransomware programs scramble your main hard disk, these %$#!! programs scan your other hard disks and purposely destroy anything that looks like a backup image.

That is where the “air gap” comes in. This mysterious term simply means that there is no wired (or wireless!) connection between device A and device B. That is, there is an “air gap” between the two devices. Unfortunately, those extra hard disks that we built into our PCs do not pass this test. There is no air gap between them and the hackers and indeed they have been compromised.

Luckily, however, an external USB hard disk that you unplug after each backup has exactly that “air gap” feature.

Solution Part 3: External USB Hard Disks for Each PC – This step is pretty simple. Buy a large external USB hard disk for each PC. As of the date of this post, two terabyte external USB hard disks are selling for $89 on Amazon.com. Unless you are trying to edit video on a PC, chances are high that you will be using at most 2-300 gigabytes of your disk. A 2TB USB drive will be sufficient to have multiple versions backed up for each PC.

“Can’t I just buy one and share it?” – I don’t recommend attempting to save money this way. You will get very confused about which image belongs to which computer. As a small business operation it is safer and more effective to simply dedicate one USB drive to each PC in your office.

Norton Ghost for Windows 7 and Below

The picture shows the box cover of Norton Ghost 15

Norton Ghost – Great Product for Windows 7 and Below

Once upon a time there was a wonderful product called “Norton Ghost”. The product was reasonably priced (if you did not mind processing the rebate coupons). The product was easy to install and easy to use. It worked really well.

Although the product had many features, the feature that users loved was the ability to make an image of a computers hard disk that included every bit and was effectively a snapshot in time. Mess up your system settings? Accidentally download an obnoxious virus? Upgrade to a catastrophically unstable device driver version? No problem!

  1. Put the Norton Ghost install CD in your CD drive.
  2. Plug in the USB hard drive containing the backup image.
  3. Reboot the computer.

Norton Ghost would come up, automatically detect everything, find your backup image and present you with the option to restore. All you had to do was click “Go” and go eat lunch. When you came back, your computer would be as good as new. Every last bit would be back where it was prior to the screw up.

This product was so handy and useful, it had achieved marketeer’s Nirvana: the product name had become a well-known verb. “No problem. I’ll just ghost that and have you back up in a jiffy!”

This halcyon state of affairs lasted through 2011 and into early 2012 at which point PC makers started transitioning from conventional BIOS to UEFI, an architectural upgrade meant to overcome limitations caused by the 1980s era architecture of conventional BIOS….

Don’t Buy Symantec System Recovery

The picture shows the box cover of Symantec System Recovery 2013

Symantec System Recovery – Not Recommended

Since UEFI BIOS was going to require some adjustments to the product design, Symantec decided to make a number of changes to their marketing strategy at the same time:

  1. Substantial price increase. Or, at least a substantial effective price increase as they both increased the price and stopped offering rebates.
  2. Replace the catchy “Ghost” name with the eminently forgettable “Symantec System Recovery”.
  3. Make the product much more complicated.
  4. Ship a product that does not actually work.

Frankly speaking, I can’t imagine what they were thinking. Why did they simply throw away all the customer goodwill built up around the “Ghost” brand?  I can’t see any upside for them.

In any event, the product does not work. In 2014  I purchased a new top-of-the-line Lenovo X1 Carbon with a QXGA (2048 x 1536) screen and Windows 8.1.  Being a loyal Ghost customer, I also made the effort to figure out what Symantec had done with my favorite product and chase shown a copy of Symantec System Recovery 2013 – paying more than twice what I had previously paid for Ghost. Once I had it installed, it seemed to work in a manner similar to Ghost.

However, earlier this year I needed to send the Notebook in for repair and was getting ready for the service center to completely wipe my disk. As a precaution, I decided to make sure that the new Symantec product was going to be able to restore my system. I was appalled to find that NO it was NOT going to restore my system.  First, it was not smart enough to recognized the QXGA resolution monitor. On reboot the UI was microscopic. Each line was about 1/8″ high. Using a magnifying glass, I found that the product had decided that the backups (which it had made!) could not be loaded onto my hard disk. I spent a few hours crawling around on online forums and reading cryptic release notes put out by the Symantec team. The bottom line was that I was supposed to get some special low-level disk formatting tools – not provided by Symantec – and do some sort of intricate and risky low-level formatting procedure which might have run afoul of Lenovo’s backup partitioning scheme.

Extremely irritated, I sent the machine in for service as is with no backup solution and a failing power switch  that made it difficult or impossible to install one. Needless to say, I can’t recommend this product.

R-Drive Image for Windows (Any Version)

The picture shows the box for R-Drive Image

R-Drive Image for Windows

After the X1 Carbon went to Lenovo’s service center in Atlanta…the initial results were not acceptable. Late. Poor communication. However, about the third time I called on a Friday, I got a crackerjack, smart young woman on the phone and she made heaven and earth move. Monday morning my repaired machine was waiting for me at my office in Austin with absolutely every hardware problem repaired – and with my disk contents intact. In fact, the quality of the unit was BETTER after service than it was when I first purchased it.

Interestingly, I had a similar experience with a Sony Vaio notebook. Apparently, the factories in China are not all that careful. Units arrive on your doorstep in the United States that are barely snapped together. Thinks fall off. Other things fail. However, when you send the unit in for service, if you get the right United States based highly-skilled technician, that technician will basically take the unit apart and re-manufacture it for you. You end up with a rock-solid unit that is built the way the design team intended it to be built. I now have one Lenovo and one Sony notebook that fit this description.

At any rate, I digress. I did quite a bit of research to find a replacement for Norton Ghost. My choice is R-Drive image.

R-Drive image is not cheap, costing a bit more than the historical street price for Norton Ghost. However, R-Drive image is cheaper than the Symantec product that does not actually work.

R-Drive image is very easy to purchase online. I used the free trial for a week or so and then purchased a license. I tested it by doing the reboot with a recovery USB (which it creates for you). It booted right up – with a reasonably sized font (!) – found the backup, and was down to the “click here to go” screen. Honestly, I did not click go and let it re-image my hard disk because I am not a well-funded test lab. This is my real working machine I am testing with. However, I feel confident that it would have restored my hard disk without any issues.

One difference between Norton Ghost and R-Drive Image is that the latter does not attempt to make incremental backups. It simply makes an image file of the hard disk on your USB drive. Norton Ghost had the appealing feature of storing delta images. That is, it would make a full backup and then store only changes. RiDrive Image does not have this function. However, I have noticed recently that on some of our Windows 7 machines that are still using Norton Ghost, it is struggling to do these incremental images now that we have 200+ GB of stuff to back up. I think the days of the incremental image may be behind us. In any case, my two terabyte external hard disk holds about 10 backup images of my Lenovo X1 Carbon comfortably. As such, I simply manage it. I keep one really old backup, one from perhaps two months ago, and starting from a month ago, one per week.

Solution Part 4: R-Drive Image for Windows PCs – If you have pre-2012 Windows 7 PCs and can still find a copy of Norton Ghost, you may be able to use that. Otherwise, buy enough R-Drive Image licenses to cover all your PCs. Use it to back up each PC once a week. Unplug each USB disk drive when you are done.

Super Duper! for the Mac

The picture is a screenshot of the SuperDuper web site showing their logo and marketing slogan.

SuperDuper! for the Mac

Macs are wonderful machines, but the selection of native Mac software does not compare to the selection of software available for Windows machines. There is no Norton Ghost for the Mac.

Apple itself provides “Time Machine” However, from what I have been able to gather, Time Machine suffers from the same problem as our built-in hard disks. You have to leave the hard disk attached at all times for it to work properly. This configuration will not withstand a determined ransomware attack.

Screenshot shows SuperDuper! getting ready to clone a hard disk

SuperDuper! simple disk copy operation

After some research, I found SuperDuper! from Shirt Pocket Software.

SuperDuper! is a very simple and reasonably-priced application. Basically, SuperDuper! simply clones your Mac hard disk to the attached USB disk. This approach is very simple. One slight drawback of this approach is that you can’t store multiple images on the USB drive. Your USB drive stores exactly one and only one snapshot of your Mac. That limitation makes SuperDuper! a little less useful for doing a tricky and complicated series of changes to your Mac. However, the complex-set-of-changes scenario does not happen as often with Macs as it does with Windows machines. For protecting against ransomeware attacks, SuperDuper! is entirely adequate.

Solution Part 5: SuperDuper! for Macs – Buy copies of SuperDuper! for all your Macs. Use them to backup each Mac once a week. Unplug each USB disk drive when you are done.

iOS and Android

The ransomware problem is less pronounced for iOS and Android.

There have been some reports of thugs exploiting the Apple “Find My Phone” lockout the legitimate user. The vulnerability seems to be related to the not-very-secure iCloud implementation. However, in the same round of security-hardening that prompted us to install SpiderOak we also locked down iCloud. We took it off of all of our Windows devices and disabled as much of it as possible on our Apple products.

Here is some additional information on the iOS Ransomware Threat.

There are also some Android variants floating around. My previous investigation suggested that the risk for us was pretty low. That is, the risk seemed to be highest for users who revel in constantly downloading and trying new mobile apps. While we do have a few Android devices, they are pretty stable and as such not too much of a risk. However, we have gone ahead and installed Avast AntiVirus on them.

Here is a little more information on the Android Ransomware Threat.

Amazon Marketplace – Algorithmic Price Games

two ridiculous $176 prices and one $8 price

Remarkable Algorithmic Pricing on Amazon Marketplace

When we first started Asatte Press a few years ago, we dived enthusiastically into the task of writing and publishing our first book – a systematic guide for young men on how to host cocktail parties, dress for the occasion, manage the social niceties, and understand the nuances of different wines and liquors. It was a lot of fun to make. We had a big team of interns help us. They produced some really great graphic art. We produced a very nice looking product.

Then we encountered reality. There is absolutely no demand for this sort of book. The young men in question really do not want the information, thank you. They are defiantly proud of their “anti-establishment” reverse baseball caps. This was a classic case of a faulty business decision made on the basis of “gut feel” rather than solid data. Oh well. We are learning and getting better at doing careful data-driven market research before we spend time, effort, and money on things.

In the mean time, we have a large pile of these books. They are nice books and it seems a shame to simply take them to the recycling facility, so Tomoko is putting them up for sale cheap on her personal Amazon Seller account.

And that is where it gets interesting. As you can see from the figure, Tomoko is offering the book new for $7.99 while two sellers are offering it used for $176.95 – what is going on? This is a simple, but up-close-and-personal example of the algorithmic gaming that goes on in the Amazon Marketplace. The two offers shown are actually identical from two different IDs that are obviously the same dealer. Dealers like this one don’t actually have copies of any books. Instead, the run a sort of sucker game of algorithmic pricing in which they attempt to entice customers into naively paying a premium price for a book. In the event that someone actually orders one for $176.95, that dealer will scramble around trying to find a real copy somewhere (for $7.99) and ship it to the customer. Apparently, in some cases they apparently even ask the legitimate dealers to drop ship for them.

One problem with these schemes is that their algorithms seem to get tripped up by mathematical boundary conditions – like only one other seller of the book. I guess that the math that they use is expecting to have 100 other offers and so some sort of polynomial spline fit to pick a price. One there is only one legitimate price point, the math goes berserk and spits out a ridiculous number.

Amazon hates these guys and has been trying all kinds of things to weed them out. Recent measures have included pressuring all sellers to ship the same day and also trying to shorten the promised delivery time. Unfortunately, these sorts of measures tend to hurt the legitimate mom-and-pop dealers as well and Amazon usually ends up having to back off.

These phenomena are all part of the joy and fun of being in the publishing business currently.

Block Spam Calls with NoMoRobo.com

Picture shows a spam can with a red circle and bar superimposed on it.

Block Spam Calls with NoMoRobo.com

Are you frustrated by the complete ineffectiveness of the government’s National Do Not Call Registry?

When this registry went live in 2004, we signed up immediately. Nuisance calls dropped off remarkably. However, Congress never voted to allocate any actual money for enforcement – one suspects that certain powerful groups within Congress are personal owners of the spam-call generating businesses. In recent years, the spam-call industry has recognized that the Do Not Call Registry is a national joke and begun ignoring it with abandon.

Facing a Congress that actually seems to like spam-call generating industries, the Federal Trade Commission eventually realized that they were never going to get anywhere in terms of actual enforcement. As such, they decided to make lemonade out of the lemons. In 2013, they scraped together $50,000 and announced a contest for the best free-market solution to the problem. The winners were announced on 2 April 2013. NoMoRobo.com is the direct descendant of one of the two winners of the FTC prize.

How Does it Work?

The key hook that NoMoRobo uses to intercept the spam calls is a very simple feature that is offered by most land-line and VoIP providers in the United States: the option to ring a second phone number when an incoming call arrives. Say your carrier is Vonage and your phone number is: (512) 543-1234. One of the options in your Vonage account is the ability to designate another number that rings at the same time your number rings. Say you set up your account so that this second number is: (415) 987-6543. When anyone calls your number (That is: (512) 543-1234) then both your number and the other number (that is: (415) 987-6543) ring at the same time. Furthermore, both numbers receive the same caller ID information.

Picture shows a robot delivering a can of SPAM to the telephone number which in turn rings NoMoRobo as well as the home phone

How NoMoRobo.com Works

That is really all it takes. You sign up with NoMoRobo. Once you are registered, you logon to your carrier’s account and setup NoMoRobo’s phone number as your second phone number. The setup is really simple and only takes a minute or two.

Once you are setup, as calls come into your phone number, they also arrive at NoMoRobo simultaneously. However, since NoMoRobo serves a very large number of customers, they can see things that you can’t. For example:

  • They can see a single source number sequentially dialing its way through an area code.
  • They can see a single source number placing hundreds of calls per minute.
  • They can see a source number that other NoMoRobo callers have flagged as a spam robot.

If NoMoRobo thinks the call is spam, it simply answers its line, holds for a half second or so and hangs up again. That terminates the call. At home, you hear a single ring.

The single ring turns out to be much less intrusive than the persistent ringing of a spam call without NoMoRobo. In fact, I kind of like the single ring. It is sort of like sitting outside on a warm summer night, drinking a beer, and listening to the bug zapper fry insects. Each zapping sound yields a sort of visceral pleasure. Likewise, I now have found that I enjoy the sound of the single ring: “Another irritating spam call hammered by NoMoRobo!” Time to crack open a beer.

What About False Positives/Negatives?

Picture shows NoMoRobo's user interface for reporting a number (step 1)

Report a Number Step 1

Since you are still getting the single ring, you are also getting the caller ID string. If you have a reasonably modern home telephone, the calls blocked by NoMoRobo.com will show up as a series of “missed calls”. You can review these periodically to see if anything is getting blocked that should not be.

Picture shows NoMoRobo's user interface to report a number (step 2)

Report a Number Step 2

In either case, whether it was a call that should not have been blocked or a call that should not have gotten through, it is very easy to report a problem. You simply log on, fill in the details, and press submit.

We have been using the service for several months now and it is remarkably good. I haven’t detected anything that was erroneously blocked and we have had exactly one call that should not have gotten through – some annoying, local Texas political harangue. It took less than a minute to report the bad number.

How Much does it Cost?

For home phones, the service is free. NoMoRobo’s business model is to serve consumers free in order to collect the data about the bad actors. NoMoRobo will then charge businesses for the service, use the data provided by the large base of consumers being served for free.

QuickBooks Can’t Connect to Bank of America

Symptom

You have had QuickBooks 2014 (or earlier versions) setup with online banking connecting for a long time. Everything has been running fine. Suddenly, one day “Bank Feeds” simply stop working. QuickBooks displays this error message:

Error message shows please try again in a few days,

QuickBooks Fails to Connect to Bank of America

Really?! Try again in a day or two?! OK. You are busy. Or patient. You wait a day or two. Same problem. You wait another day or two. Same problem.

Contacting Support

When you contact Intuit support, they will have no idea why this problem is happening…although they will suspect it is because you have done something wrong. However, you are in luck! Not only does Intuit have a dedicated helpdesk for supporting Bank of America customers, Bank of America has a similar dedicated helpdesk for supporting QuickBooks customers.

  1. The Intuit dedicated helpdesk for Bank of America Customers will spend an hour or so explaining to you that the problem is definitely caused by the stupid people at Bank of America changing their website constantly.
  2. The Bank of America helpdesk for QuickBooks Customers will respond by spending an hour or so explaining to you that the problem is definitely either in the poor design of the QuickBooks software or in your inept use thereof.

Meanwhile, you are still dead in the water.

What is Actually Going On?

The problem is in the stone-age software communication protocol between these two major institutions. That is, apparently they don’t have one. Instead of using something modern, architected, and designed for electronic business-to-business communication, these two giant companies communicate by having Intuit use a web-scraper to try to decipher Bank of America’s customer website. For anyone who understands anything about software development, this is an astoundingly primitive approach.

In any event, although there may be any number of ways in which a minor tweak to the Bank of America website can break Intuit’s web-scraper, there is one trigger that will break it without fail and cause the error message shown above. That trigger is any change to your business credit cards. I have had this problem three times in four years for our little business:

  1. When I added a business credit card for a summer intern
  2. When I cancelled that intern’s credit card at the end of the summer
  3. When Bank of America got worried about security breaches at Home Depot, Target, et al and spontaneously reissued my credit card – even though my account was not actually having any fraud issues.

The nasty thing about the problem is that the QuickBooks bank feed doesn’t stop working just for the single credit card in question. Rather, once there is any sort of change in the constellation of your business credit cards, QuickBooks completely locks up and refuses to communicate with Bank of America at all…instead displaying the useless error message shown above.

How Do I Fix It?

Fortunately, it is not hard to fix. Don’t waste your time calling the Inuit or Bank of America helpdesks. What you have to do is completely deactivate online banking and reactivate it again from scratch. If you are a small business with only a handful of accounts, this process will only take a few minutes.

Deactivate Online Banking

The first step is to deactivate online banking for all of your Bank of America accounts.

Open the Chart of Accounts

Open the Chart of Accounts

For each Bank of America account, Right Click and Select Edit Account

For each Bank of America account, Right Click and Select Edit Account

Deactivate Online Services

Deactivate Online Services

Click OK to Dismiss Warning

Click OK to Dismiss Warning

Reactivate Online Banking

Select Your Main Bank of America Checking Account and Setup Bank Feeds

Select Your Main Bank of America Checking Account and Setup Online Banking

Click Yes and Let QuickBooks Re-Initialize

Click Yes and Let QuickBooks Re-Initialize

Select the Correct Bank of America

Select the Correct Bank of America

Click Continue

Click Continue

Enter Your Bank of America Online ID and Password

Enter Your Bank of America Online ID and Password

Relink Your Accounts.

Relink Your Accounts. Use the Pull-Down Next to Each Account to Assign the QB Account. All Accounts can be Re-Assigned in One Step

Online Bill Pay

If you are using online bill payment, some additional steps may be needed. That is, there are two ways to pay recurring bills:

  1. Initiate the bill payment from QuickBooks – Enter the bill in QuickBooks. Pay the bill in QuickBooks. QuickBooks uploads the information to Bank of America. Bank of America prints and mails a check. Later when the check is cashed, the item appears in your QuickBooks bank feed and QuickBooks recognizes it.
  2. Initiate the bill payment from Bank of America – Use the Bank of America website. Select bill payment. Setup the supplier information. Pay from the website. Bank of America prints and mails a check. Later when the check is cashed, the item appears in your QuickBooks bank feed. The first time, you have to assign a vendor and account number to it. In subsequent months, QuickBooks should recognize it and automatically set the transaction up for you.

We had started with the first method because our accountant liked it. However, we had problems with the primitive interface between QuickBooks and Bank of America garbling/truncating address information and causing Bank of America to send checks to nonexistent addresses. As such, for some suppliers we had started using the second method. After the most recent round of fixing this communication problem, the first method stopped working – obviously some additional setup is required. However, I decided that rather than messing around figuring out out to re-setup the first method, I would simply transition the few remaining suppliers to the second method that seems to work better anyway.

Preventing it from Happening Again

You may not be able to completely prevent this sort of problem from happening if Bank of America makes a change and you try to synchronize the QuickBooks bank feeds before you are aware of the change. However, if you are aware of the change because you initiated it (adding new card, cancelling an old one) If you are careful to change all of the associated account setup information in QuickBooks BEFORE trying to synchronize bank feeds, you should be able to avoid this problem.

Making Your U.S. iPhone 5 Work in Singapore

Update 24 August 2014 – New Information in Green

There is a lot of misinformation floating around on the web about whether an iPhone 5s purchased in the United States will work in Singapore or not. If you have an unlocked iPhone 5s purchased in the United States, it will definitely work in Singapore. All you have to do is head to the nearest SingTel shop, buy a nanoSIM card for it.

The Model Number Confusion

If you look at Apple’s support website, you will get the impression that there are all sorts of different models of iPhone each of which only work in a certain region of the world. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that these “models” have different components in them. You would be wrong. If you look carefully at the bottom of that website, in a tiny little font you will find some mumble words about phones perhaps working in other places, don’t call us, good luck. There are not multiple iPhone models. This is the same marketing-restriction nonsense that we have seen with DVD “region codes” Every DVD player in the world runs on universal chipsets that are fully capable of playing any DVD on the planet, that are then “crippled” to work with only one region’s DVDs. I know this, because I own a Pioneer DVD player that was sold through business partners in the United States – with Pioneer providing them with clear step-by-step instructions on how to NOT disable (“Be sure not to disable the crippling using these steps!”) the crippling on the pain of having the warrantee for the unit voided. That is, unless said business partner restored the factory settings before sending the unit in for repair. The clue that something similar is going on with the iPhone 5s is that the website lists a large number of models that seem to have different frequencies, but if you examine the list for the United States model, you will see that the United States model’s frequencies are the superset of all the other models. With a proper SIM, the United States model will work anywhere in the world.

Unlocked Phone

One thing you DO need, however, is an unlocked phone. That means that you pay for the phone separately from the service. I purchased my phone directly from the Apple Store as an unlocked phone and it was rather expensive. I believe that Virgin Mobile and/or T-Mobile also provide options to buy unlocked phones on an installment plan. That is, they sell you a phone on an installment plan that is separate from their service. You are free to stop using their service, but you still have to pay off the cost of the phone.

Getting the SIM Card

OK, you have your unlocked iPhone. Head to your nearest SingTel store – almost every mall in Singapore has one. Note, however, that you will need to go to an actual SingTel store, not to one of their business partners. You will need to bring your passport.

Blog 10 A - Head Directly to Cashier

Blog 10 A – Head Directly to Cashier

Once at the store, don’t be dismayed by complicated systems for taking a number to talk to a sales associate. You don’t need to talk to a sales associate. You can just head to the cashier directly.  The cashier will take care of everything including swapping the SIM for you. Note that unless you are never going back to the United States, you want to be sure not to lose the nanoSIM that you were using previously. Normally, the SingTel cashier will put your old nanoSIM back into the little card case that the SingTel nanoSIM came in. Put that somewhere safe. You will need it when you get back. The SIM card costs S$38 (about US$ 30) Note that the card comes with $30 of credit as well as a special 7-day, 1GB data plan. By the way, I should also note that the service I received at the SingTel stores so far has generally been excellent. The staff are very pleasant, cheerful, competent, and helpful. They are a pleasure to work with.

Make a Note of Your Phone Number

Your new SIM card gives your phone a Singapore local phone number. It is written on the card. However, if you every forget it, you can find it again in Settings->Phone

What about All My Apps and Contacts?

The only thing that changes when you swap SIMs is your phone number. All your contacts and apps are still there. Your contacts will simply work…provided you have been disciplined about how you entered them in the first place. The key point is that you need to enter all phone numbers starting with “+” and the country code. For example, U.S. phone numbers need to be entered with “+1”, Singapore with “+65”, Japan with “+81” and so on. If you have entered your contacts this way, the phone will be smart enough to figure out what country it is in, what prefixes it needs to dial and so on. Of course, the downside is that placing international calls is REALLY EXPENSIVE…so you don’t want to actually use this feature. However, it is comforting to know that it will work in an emergency.

Understanding the SingTel Prepaid Accounts

The SingTel prepay system has a “Main Account” and then any number of other special purpose accounts like “Free texting from Argentina on Thursdays” most of which are entirely useless. This will be important when you get to purchase a “Top Up” card.

This is the Reload Card You Want

This is the Reload Card You Want

The basic approach to keeping your phone running is:

  1. Purchase a $10, $20 or $50 “Hi! Prepaid Card”  but NOT any of the others like “$22 DataTalk”
  2. Activate the card. This step will transfer that amount to your “Main Account”
  3. Log in to SingTel’s website.
  4. Purchase a DataPlan. This step will activate data for your phone and give you a certain amount of credit. The cost of the DataPlan is deducted from your “Main Account”

I work in Singapore for 28 days at a time. I find that one $10 and one $20 card is enough to cover my needs for a 28-day cycle.

Topping Up Your Account

As mentioned above, you can purchase the top-up cards from the cashier at any convenience store, 7-11 and others that are all over place.

  1. Don’t expect the cashier to understand these cards. They don’t. Even worse, they will answer “yes” to any question you ask them about these cards, potentially causing you to waste money on a card that doesn’t do what you need it to.
  2. As I mentioned above, you want the $10, $20, or $50 cards. However, I have never been able to find the $50 card anywhere. That means your choices are only the $10 or $20 cards.
  3. You don’t want any of the other odd denomination special promotion cards that SingTel sells because these only add value to the “Free Texting from Argentina on Thursdays” accounts and do NOT add value to your “Main Account”  They are a complete waste of money!
Scratch Off to Reveal Codes

Scratch Off to Reveal Codes

Once you have the card, find a quiet place to sit down. Turn the card over. Scratch off the little foil strip on the rear. There are two numbers, a 10-digit number and a 6-digit confirmation code. Call the number shown on the card, follow the voice prompts, and key these in. Very easy.

Purchasing a DataPlan

Once you have topped up your “Main Account”, purchasing a data plan is easy. I think there is a way to do this directly from the phone, but I prefer to use SingTel’s website.

  1. Bring up the website
  2. Enter your phone number.
  3. SingTel will send a 6 digit code to your phone.
  4. Enter that code.
  5. Purchase the data plan.

It is that easy. Since my trips are always 28 days, I buy one 30-day, 1 GB plan for S$20 each trip.

Swapping Back to Your U.S. SIM

You will need a paper clip. I was a little surprised not to find anything like a “SIM Swap Tool” online. A paperclip will work. However, popping the SIM out with a paperclip does require a bit of finger strength. Someone with arthritic hands might have difficulty.

Popping Out the SIM

Popping Out the SIM

Power the phone completely off. Place the phone on a flat surface. Insert the paperclip into the small hole on the right side of the phone. Push in until the tray pops out.

Swap the SIM

Swap the SIM

Remove the tray, swap the SIMs. Push the tray back into the slot. Power the phone on again. That is all there is to it.

Personal Hotspot aka: “Tethering”

Update 24 August 2014

Does tethering work? That depends on how you do it. Wireless LAN “Personal Hotspot” tethering does not work. Even worse, it looks sort of like it might be working and wastes an enormous amount of your time as you struggle to try to figure out why you can get Google to come up once, but after that nothing seems to work. Don’t waste your time trying to make your iPhone 5 provide a personal wireless hotspot in Singapore using Singtel prepaid service!

The good news, however, is that there is another way that works amazingly well and that is to tether your iPhone using USB. I am using it from a shopping mall right now and the performance is blazingly fast and rock solid. Here is how to make it work:

  1. Go to the Apple Store (or Challenger in Singapore) swallow hard, grit your teeth, and pay the outrageous price for an official Apple USB to lightning cable. Don’t waste your time and money on cheaper, knock-off cables – they won’t work.
  2. Install iTunes on your notebook computer.
  3. Setup iTunes to manage your iPhone. That is, connect your iPhone and go through all the rigamarole to get them trusting each other, backing up, synching, etc…

With that, you are ready to go. When you are ready to use the service, make sure your iPhone is setup for “Personal Hotspot” = “On” <even though you won’t be using a personal hotspot!> Plug in the phone using the official USB cable. iTunes will start and within a few seconds you will be connected.

You do need to pay a little attention to what you do while you are connected this way. I generally buy the 1GB 30-day data package for S$20 and that provides more than enough data for all the e-Mail, web browsing, Facebook, photo posting, etc… that I want to do for four weeks. However, I do NOT try to stream any 3-hour HD movies or anything stupid like that.

Power Supplies

Do I need a special power supply for Singapore? Do I need to carry a transformer to convert 220 volts to 110 volts? That would be “No” and “No”. Even the tiny little cube of a power supply that Apple ships with the iPhone is actually capable of running on pretty much any power in the world. All you need is an adapter plug. Singapore uses the same plugs as England. What I actually do is carry a small U.S. power strip with me. I use the adapter plug to plug the power strip in to my hotel room wall socket. I then plug my iPhone, iPad, and notebook computers into the U.S. power strip. Not many hotel rooms provide three separate sockets for customer use (although hotels are waking up and that situation is improving) and the British plugs are the bulkiest in the world. The entire arrangement ends up a bit more compact by doing the British-to-U.S. conversion in just one place.

On-Line Top-Up of Your Account

On-Line Top-Up Does Not Actually Work

On-Line Top-Up Does Not Actually Work

Gee, all that fiddling around with prepaid cards sounds like a pain. Can’t I just get on a website and charge it to my credit card? In theory, you can. However, when I tried to do so, it did not work. Note that this may have something to do with the overall chaotic credit card situation in Singapore. Unlike most other places, Singapore does not seem to have unified credit card processing services. Most restaurants have at least three separate swipe terminals, some have as many as five or six. Even worse, the ability of those swipe terminals to actually charge things to United States cards is very erratic. The connections between Singapore’s credit card processing systems and the big ones in the United States seem to be pretty wobbly.

Other Kinds of Plans

The prepaid plan works perfectly for me since I go to Singapore for consulting and I can simply directly add the prepaid costs to my expense report. There is no question of charges for other time when I am not in Singapore. It works perfectly for me. That having been said, SingTel does definitely offer regular monthly plans. If you are staying for a longer period of time, one of these may fit your needs better than the prepaid plan – and also possibly provide official support for tethering as well.

T-Mobile Alternative

Update 24 August 2014

Since I first wrote this post, T-Mobile has introduced a service that provides global roaming including data roaming without extra charges. This service is a great idea – finally someone in the industry putting down the “Stupid Juice” bottle and thinking about what the customers actually need!  I am using this service and it does indeed work in Singapore. Nevertheless, I still swap SIMs when I get here for two reasons:

  1. Network Performance. T-Mobile’s partner is M1. It works, but the coverage and speeds are not nearly as good as Singtel’s.
  2. Local Number. By swapping SIMs I have a local number which I have in fact printed on business cards. It is a lot handier to have a local number if you are going to spend a lot of time in Singapore.

T-Mobile’s initiative is exactly the direction the industry needs to go (put down that Stupid Juice bottle!) and I am an enthusiastic supporter. Nevertheless, it is a really challenging and complicated undertaking. T-Mobile has to sign up partners in something like 70 countries, work out revenue sharing agreements, technical support arrangements, and so on. It is still a little wobbly. It will probably be a few years before it really gets to the “It Just Works” level. For some people, however, the T-Mobile plan might be a better approach. Note: you have to get the right T-Mobile plan. That is, this sort of roaming works only on their post-paid, monthly plans. It does NOT work on any of their prepaid plans and not all T-Mobile employees are sufficiently up to speed to guide you to the correct plan.

Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Overview

Office 365 vs RS E-MailJust about a year ago, we were pretty excited as we signed up for Microsoft’s Office 365 service. A year later we have cancelled Microsoft’s service and switched to an Open-Xchange based e-mail service hosted by Rackspace. This post is the first in a series that examines in detail, our experience and thought process in signing up for and then moving off of Office 365.

Our Initial Needs

A year ago, we had a pretty good idea of our key requirements for an e-mail service.

Cloud-Based We definitely needed a cloud-based solution. We were starting our business in our kitchen and knew that even when we moved into regular office space, it would be a long time before we could afford a computer room, server computers, and the IT staff to take care of them
Web E-Mail Client We needed a run-anywhere, browser-based e-mail client. We knew that we would be hiring student interns and that these students would tend to arrive with their own laptop computers.
e-Mail Aliases We wanted to make efficient use of generic addresses like “info@asattepress.com” without paying for separate mail boxes or requiring someone to have to constantly check separate mail boxes.
Microsoft Office Support We also knew that the students would tend to have “academic” copies of Microsoft Office with problematic license restrictions. We needed to find an easy and cost-effective means of providing legal office document processing.

Additional Attractive Features

Microsoft’s Office 365 offering seemed to fit the bill. In addition to the basics listed above, it offered some additional attractive bundled features:

Microsoft Lync Microsoft’s instant messaging solution. I had worked for years at IBM and we had made extensive use of the Lotus Sametime product. With employees spread all over the world, Sametime was extremely useful. Microsoft Lync looked promising.
Microsoft SharePoint Likewise, I had made extensive use of Lotus teamrooms at IBM. SharePoint looked like an attractive feature as well.

A Year Later

So, how did these different aspects of the value proposition work out for us?

  1. Cloud-Based – Good. Office 365 is cloud-based.
  2. Web E-Mail Client – Disappointing. I have been pretty happy with the desktop version of Outlook. As such, I was disappointed to see just how clumsy and awkward the web version was.
  3. e-Mail Aliases – Clumsy. The interface to manage aliases is hard to work with. Exchange also translates the incoming address making it impossible to see who the original e-mail was addressed to.
  4. Microsoft Office Support – Problematic. The online tools were not up to real professional applications. The downloadable versions did not support Mac – even though Microsoft has a Mac version of Office.
  5. Microsoft Lync – Irrelevant. The Lync product did not work very well and even Microsoft is transitioning users to Skype.
  6. Microsoft SharePoint –  Irrelevant. The product was clumsy and hard to use.

The following posts I will discuss these topics in more detail and compare the Office 365 experience with the Open-Xchange experience.

Pricing and Customer Service Office 365 is quite a bit more expensive than the comparable Rackspace service.
Web E-Mail Client Office 365 uses too many popups and also has many frustrating and confusing features. The performance is also sluggish compared with the simpler, faster Open-Xchange client.
Instant Messaging and File Sharing Both Office 365 products were “heavy” implementations.
E-Mail Aliases The Open-Xchange implementation is much better.
Microsoft Office Support The web clients are still toys. The Office 365 download approach is problematic. Open Office is getting closer.

References:

Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Pricing and Customer Service

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

Pricing – Office 365

Screen Capture of Office 365 New Customer Pricing as of 7 February 2013

Office 365 New Customer Pricing as of 7 February 2013

The screen capture at the left shows Microsoft’s Office 365 pricing for new accounts as of 7 February 2013. Click here for current pricing => Microsoft Office 365 Plans.

Screen Capture of Office 365 Pricing for Existing Customers as of 7 February 2013

Office 365 Pricing for Existing Customers as of 7 February 2013

Oh yes. Just a minute. If you are an existing Office 365 customer, Microsoft has special pricing for you if you purchase additional licenses from within Office 365. The screen capture below at the right shows the pricing for additional licenses as of 7 February 2013. (There is no direct link to this information since it is visible only to existing Office 365 customers.) We were enjoying the benefits of this enhanced loyalty pricing and paying $24/month each for 6 licenses of the E3 plan (rather than $20/month for new customers)  and $4/month for one bare bones K1 mailbox.

One more consideration is that Microsoft effectively charges you for an additional license from one of the plans to support the administrator console. Suppose you want to setup the e-mail for MyCompany.com. Here is how it works:

  1. Your name is Fred
  2. You have another e-mail address (which you will need to keep) which is Fred@xyz.com
  3. You sign up for Office 365 and purchase 10 licenses of one of the plans.
  4. Microsoft sets up the domain Mycompany.onmicrosoft.com
  5. Microsoft creates the admin user as Fred@Mycompany.onmicrosoft.com and consumes one of the licenses for this user.
  6. Microsoft sends the login credentials for Fred@Mycompany.onmicrosoft.com to Fred@xyz.com
  7. Using the information in the welcome e-mail delivered to Fred@xyz.com, you log in to Fred@MyCompany.onmicrosoft.com
  8. Fred@Mycompany.onmicrosoft.com adds the domain MyCompany.com to the account and then sets up the mailboxes for MyCompany.com

Thereafter, all administration actions have to be performed by the admin. The net effect is that only 9 of the original 10 licenses are available for real users.

Pricing – Rackspace

Screen Capture of Rackspace E-Mail Pricing as of 7 February 2013

Rackspace E-Mail Pricing as of 7 February 2013

The screen capture at the left shows the Rackspace e-mail pricing for new accounts as of 7 February 2013. Click here for current pricing => Rackspace E-Mail Plans.

The Open-Xchange-based plan is the one at the right for $2/month per mailbox. For our purposes, the functionality of Open-Xchange is actually better than the function of Microsoft Exchange. We are paying $2 per month for 7 mail boxes with an extra $1 per month to synch one of those mailboxes with an iPad. Unlike Office 365, the Rackspace/Open-Xchange plan does not require the creation of a separate admin mailbox.

Our total monthly spend dropped from $150 per month to $15 per month. However, the $150 per month also covered our licenses for Microsoft Office, so the comparison is not completely apples-to-apples. I discuss the problem of Microsoft Office support in more detail in Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Microsoft Office Support

Customer Service – Office 365

Microsoft has a lot of help available if you might be about to buy some new service. As for anything else? They really don’t want to hear from you.

Screen Capture of Ask a Question

Ask a Question

Microsoft’s first hope is that you will find solace in its knowledge base or its online community. Sometimes this approach works. Let’s take a look at a typical problem. Suppose you would like to export your contacts from Office 365 in comma-separated-value (CSV) format so that you can import them to something else (A smart phone, your personal wizard, whatever). There is not a built-in function for this (Office 365 assumes that migrations and information flow in one direction only and that is to Office 365). So, you get on the forum and ask a question as shown above at the right.

O365 - 21 - Get an Answer
Typically, there is a long stream of discussion of things that don’t actually work followed eventually by an answer like the one shown at the left. In other words, as long as you enjoy installing server administration tools and writing specialized scripts, they have you covered.

What if you don’t find what you need in the information that Microsoft has available online? Let’s just give them a call! Well, Microsoft does not make that easy. They keep all of their customer support numbers carefully hidden.

Screen capture of Submit a Service Request

Submit a Service Request

In order to open a help ticket, you need to login to the admin account and enter a service request as shown in the screen capture to the right. Once you select “new request” you will be guided through several screens to select various categories from various pull-down menus – which may or may not have anything to do with your real problem – after which you click “Submit”. In my experience, you may get a phone call or you may get an e-mail. The response time will vary from 2 to 24 hours. The e-mail may contain a long list of things for you to try followed by a sentence like this (copied from an actual e-mail):

After you have saved your data, please call us. Our customer support hours are 9 AM – 5 PM Monday through Friday. You’ll find the phone numbers and business hours for your location here: http://g.microsoftonline.com/9865en-us/321. When you call it will save you time if you would please provide your Service Request number: 1195353807.

Screen Capture of Directory of Billing Help Numbers

Directory of Billing Help Numbers

Ah-Ha! We have been given access to the secret directory of call numbers…or at least some of them. (Note. In order to avoid complaints from Microsoft, I have altered the URL slightly to make the link inoperable). Once you click on the link, you will get a pop-up window with a scroll box that looks like the screen capture at the right. The first thing you notice is that Microsoft has carefully blocked copy and paste in this pop-up applet. They certainly wouldn’t want the help telephone numbers leaking out to the broader public!

Once you call the number, you will wait on hold for awhile without any indication of how long the likely wait is. Today I waited about ten minutes after which a very pleasant and competent woman in India took care of my problem.

Customer Service – Rackspace

Screen Capture Rackspace 24x7 Customer Support Is Not a Secret

Rackspace 24×7 Customer Support Is Not a Secret

Rackspace does not keep their customer support numbers a secret. To access the list shown in the screen capture to the right, click here.

I called them from Austin, Texas at 4PM CST today. The call was answered in 47 seconds by a cheerful young man who answered my question exactly in less than 10 seconds (It was an easy question). I was off the phone with my question answered in less than one minute.

One thing that was a little confusing about getting started with Rackspace is that they don’t provision you instantly. They have a nice green “Start Free 14-Day Trial” button on their website. Once you click it, it looks like everything should be setup, but actually Rackspace calls you back in person a few hours later to make sure you are a serious, real business and not some sort of pornography spam bot before they provision the free trial for you. I completely understand and agree with their policy, but they need to polish up the sign-up process a little to let new customers understand what is going on.

Performance

Performance of the product is definitely part of the value delivered. However, performance of a web-based product is a combination of several factors:

  1. Proximity – How close are you to the server? Obviously, if you are half-way around the world, service will be worse than if you are sitting right next to the server and connected over a gigabit LAN.
  2. Server Software Design – Is the server software a lean, mean, new implementation that is carefully designed to deliver exactly the service it is being asked to deliver? Or is the server software a conglomeration of “layers” that has accumulated over the decades, with many of the layers emulating legacy interfaces for ancient systems known only to archaeologists?
  3. Web-Client Design – Is the web-client tightly designed to operate with an economy of glued-on layers, pop-up boxes, and complicated back-and-forth interactions with the server?
  4. Provisioning – How generous is the hosting provider with the allocation of server hardware? Are they serving 10 users with an Intel Xeon E7-8800 blade provisioned with 512GB of memory? Or are they serving 10,000 users on an old Pentium 3 box with 512MB of memory? Provisioning is a straight cost versus commitment to quality tradeoff.

On the proximity question, we almost certainly don’t have a fair comparison here. I am in Austin and Rackspace is most likely to be serving me from data centers either in San Antonio or Dallas. Microsoft is probably serving me from a data center in the Pacific Northwest somewhere. That having been said, my Rackspace service is lightning-fast and the Office 365 service is really sluggish, especially the administrator functions.

Screen Capture of Office 365 Admin Group Editor Completely Fails to Load on 4 February 2013

Office 365 Admin Group Editor Completely Fails to Load on 4 February 2013

Microsoft’s implementation uses lots of popups and/or things that need to download and initialize every time you use them. Sometimes, they simply fail to initialize completely. Earlier this week (4 February 2013) I was trying to access the group editor from the Office 365 administration console and it completely failed to load – even using Internet Explorer 9. Regrettably, this sort of phenomenon is not unusual. Going through the Submit-Service-Request/E-Mail-from-India/Call-India-Back cycle would have been pointless. By the time I got the helpdesk in India on the phone, the problem would be gone. Indeed, it was gone the next day.

References:

Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Web E-Mail Client

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

Office 365 Client

I have used Microsoft Outlook on the desktop for about 15 years for my personal POP-based e-mail accounts and have generally been quite happy with it. As such, I had high hopes for Office 365. Get the same function as Outlook in a web browser? It sounded promising.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Office 365 e-mail client is definitely not Office reimplemented in a browser. Rather than simply moan, however, let’s cover three specific points that I can give side-by-side comparisons for.

Threaded Conversation View

Confusing Conversation View

Confusing Conversation View

Somewhere in the lab that invented Mr. Clippy for Microsoft Office about 20 years ago, a brilliant idea emerged that e-mails should be grouped as threaded conversations. To be fair, the idea may have some merit. Unfortunately, its implementation in the Office 365 mail client is confusing. E-mails disappear. You can’t see what came in which sequence.

Of course, you can turn the threaded view off. However, Microsoft is so sure that the threaded view is good for you, that they don’t let you turn it totally off. You have to turn it off for each folder, one folder at a time.

Junk Mail Folder

Junk Mail Folder Easy to Overlook

Junk Mail Folder Easy to Overlook

Can you spot the junk mail folder in the image at the right? I wasn’t able to either. Unlike most e-mail clients, rather than placing the junk mail folder at the top of the display, Office 365 sorts “Junk Mail” into the alphabetical list of your personal folders. In this position it is easy to overlook. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Office 365 junk mail filter isn’t very good and generates a rather high percentage of false positives. I missed quite a few important messages before I figured out what was going on here.

Contacts

The handling of e-mail and other contacts is the most infuriating aspect of Office 365. The poor design is especially appalling given the excellent design of Office on the desktop.

UI Won't Let You Copy E-Mail Address

UI Won’t Let You Copy E-Mail Address

If you want to open an e-mail, mark an e-mail address, and copy the address to the clipboard, the UI actively fights you. Microsoft has decided that it is against the rules for you to simply copy an e-mail address to the clipboard and do something with it. Once you have selected an e-mail address and right click you are NOT allowed to copy it. You are required to create a contact for it.

Add to Contacts Triggers Pop-Up Blocker

Add to Contacts Triggers Pop-Up Blocker

OK, I give up. I will create a contact for it. (Even though what I wanted to do with the e-mail address had nothing to do with creating a contact for it) Opps! The Office 365 add-to-contact function is specially designed to trigger popup blockers in every browser known to man. In fact, the excessive use of popups is a common thread throughout the Office 365 experience.

Add to Contacts too Stupid to Guess Name

Add to Contacts Can’t Guess Name

Once you do decide to make a contact, the implementation is really primitive. It isn’t smart enough to guess anything. Even if the person’s name is right in front of the e-mail address, the Office 365 function won’t guess the name. Instead you will have to type it in from scratch.

Rackspace/Open-Xchange Client

So, how does the Rackspace E-Mail client compare?

Threaded Conversation View

Open-Xchange - Compact, Responsive, E-Mail Interface

Open-Xchange – Compact, Responsive, E-Mail Interface

the Rackspace e-mail service is based on Open-Xchange technology. The browser client is compact, efficient, fast and intuitive. There is no threaded view. Traditional. No unnecessary distractions. It just works like you expect an e-mail client to work.

Junk Mail Folder

As you can see from the figure above, the spam folder is at the top of the explorer where you would expect it to be. Also, the key system folders (Inbox, Drafts, Sent, Spam, Trash) are subtly separated from your personal folders making them easy to find.

Contacts

Open-Xchange - Contacts Easier to Add

Open-Xchange – Contacts Easier to Add

Contacts are easier to add in the Open-Xchange client. The contact form does correctly guess the person’s name. The UI does not fight you and prevent you from copying and pasting e-mail addresses.

Although the contacts implementation in Open-Xchange is better than the implementation in Office 365, it is still not everything I would wish for. What I want is something like this:

  1. Multiple Folders – I want to have my own personal contact folders as well as folders shared with different sets of people. For example, I would like to have a family folder, a department folder, and a company wide folder.
  2. Nested Folders – I want to be able to either have multiple personal folders or nested folders so I can organize a lot of contacts. That is, I would be happy to have say 10 personal folders with different names and 4 folders shared with different sets of people.
  3. High Function Editor – In terms of editing, I like the contact editor in Microsoft Outlook for the desktop. I want to be able to easily set pictures for contacts. I also want to be able to use rich text in the notes field. I use the notes field to keep track of all kinds of things I know about that contact. I want to be able to put lists, set fonts, make certain items bold, etc..
  4. Download to My Mobile Devices – I want all of the contacts to download to all of my mobile devices. I want ALL the contacts to download (including the shared contacts). I want ALL the information in each contact to download including images and rich text, and I want the folder structure to be retained on my mobile device.
  5. XML Export and Import – I want all of the contact information to import or export in some well-defined and open format. I would like the images and RTF note information to extract to well-defined individual file names and have the entire thing tied together in an XML structure so that other software can interact with it.
  6. Nickname Field – I want an additional “nickname” field that can be either used for Western nicknames or to show Chinese characters for Asian names or whatever. Right now, I end up using the job description field, an imperfect solution.
  7. Free or Low-Cost Central Archival Service – I would like some sort of central archival service that doesn’t cost $50/month which all the different e-mail services, mobile devices, and so on can synchronize to. I would be willing to pay $2/month.

At any rate, even with mobile synch (an extra $1/month per mailbox) the Rackspace E-mail does not meet this level of requirements. Rackspace does offer a more expensive Exchange hosting service, but that would put me back into a lot of things I don’t like about Office 365.

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Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Instant Messaging and File Sharing

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

Instant Messaging

E-mail from Microsoft: Microsoft Gives Up on Messenger

Microsoft Gives Up on Messenger

Coming from a background of working at IBM and using the Lotus Sametime software intensively, Microsoft Lync looked promising. We would be able to ask quick questions of one another (a common practice at IBM) and see who was working when.

The first thing we noticed was that it was pretty hard to setup and get working. You had to download and install it. You had to configure it. You had to manually find people to link to.

Due to the bolted-together-from-several-different-pieces nature of Office 365, we never really were able to get the pictures of people to work fully between Lync, Contacts and E-Mail in Office 365. Spending a few hours on the phone with Microsoft’s helpdesk in India was not something we looked forward to. We eventually gave up on getting the pictures working.

It is not that Lync is a terrible product. It would have been pretty exciting in the late 1990s. The problem is that Lync simply comes up short against the “It just works!” standard of current products such as Dropbox or Skype.

Microsoft now owns Skype and has obviously come to the same conclusion. I received the e-mail shown above and to the right a few weeks ago, outlining Microsoft’s plan to transition users to Skype.

Actually, for Asatte Press, the biggest problem turned out to have nothing to do with Microsoft’s product: We simply don’t need the instant messaging service much. Our employees work at our office and our office is tiny. When our employees are off the clock, they are off the clock. Our small business was not able to get much value out of instant messaging. Period.

File Sharing

Office 365 comes with Microsoft’s Sharepoint product. Like the instant messaging product, this would have been a very exciting product in the 1990s, but it has been passed by newer products in the marketplace.

Image of Teamsite showing No Way to get to Home from Team Site

No Way to get to Home from Team Site

To use Sharepoint, you had two choices:

  1. Web Client – We found the web client sluggish and hard to use. Multiple file upload worked only on Internet Explorer and then only on days when the stars were properly aligned. In a symptom of the bolted-together nature of Office 365, once you clicked on “Team Site” to access Sharepoint, there was no way to get back to your home page.
  2. Local Install – Microsoft also provide a local client for Windows. This client worked well, once setup and configured. However, it complains a lot about needing authentication (even when it is not running). This was again, a fairly heavyweight piece of software in terms of installation and configuration.

Our solution ended up looking like this:

  1. Subversion – Since we do a lot of software development, we spun up a Linux server image at a hosting provider and installed a copy of the open source source code control system called Subversion. For our technical users and for business critical files, Subversion provides version tracking, branching, merging and integration with trouble ticket systems (we use Mantis). However, subversion is a little tough for our non-technical users (but so was Sharepoint).
  2. Dropbox – For casual file sharing and non-technical users, we simply let people move things around with Dropbox. Dropbox is a wonderful example of excellent software development execution by a team dedicated to “It just works”

With Subversion, Mantis, and Dropbox in place, we really don’t have a need for Sharepoint.

References: