Investing in Microsoft Surface; A tough call

I love my gadgets. I’ve been buying up the latest toys for some time and am the target audience when it comes to products by Apple and now Microsoft. However, Apple has been doing this for a while and I’m invested now. What would it take for me to jump on a new platform (and what that really means is to invest in another set of applications)?

You tossed your records and cassettes for CDs. You tossed those VHS tapes and Laser Discs for DVDs. It’s tough to swallow and most don’t jump on such change without hesitation. Lately it’s been easier—you can get all your music in a digital format for your favorite player. You can play your old DVDs in your new 3D Blu-ray player. Media formats are one thing but applications are quite another.

I’m interested in Android, but being very happy with my iPhone and iPad have kept me from jumping in here. I’ve invested thousands in media and applications since I waited in that first line for the first iPhone. Unless Apple blew a couple of releases and let comparable devices get noticeably far ahead (which seems extremely unlikely) I just don’t see how I (or the millions like me) could seriously consider abandoning that investment for something completely new. I know the very same can be said for the millions of Android users—everyone is building a library of applications that serve to further solidify their mobile device choice on a regular basis.

The Microsoft Surface tablet looks awesome. I definitely want it, but what will I do with it? Maybe if there were a category of applications I could dedicate to it, I could convince myself there was some value in owning one. Even if you are a heavy Windows user with tons of Windows applications, Surface runs a new operating system that will mean building a completely new and separate library of applications. Microsoft intentionally lost money on the hardware that made up Xbox game consoles when they were first released in order to get its foot in the door of an established market. It worked, so I’m very much expecting them to play a similar game here. The only way to really suck people in will be to make it super cool AND cheap. And even then what they will be sucking up are new users entering the market as opposed to turning those that made the decision years ago. As a company, Microsoft is definitely in the game for the long haul and it may be years before they get a meaningful share of this space. I can see a day when there are millions of people using Windows 8 at work and are familiar enough with the Metro interface to be compelled to “stick with they know” and choose Microsoft. But that day seems both far away and uncertain.

Do you have an iPad or Android Tablet and an interest in Surface? I’d love to hear what others are thinking. Will you get one anyway? What role do you plan to assign this new device—another media player, game system or productivity device?

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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Tech


Playing with Windows 8 on Mac

After seeing the dreaded “VMware Fusion internal monitor error” (NOT_IMPLEMENTED report) from VMWare, a quick look around pointed me to VirtualBox as the way to go and I can confirm it was a simple process to get it up and running. Below are what I used, the steps I took and some things I learned along the way installing Windows 8 on my MacBook Pro with VirtualBox.

Get VirtualBox (VirtualBox 4.1.2 for OS X hosts) from:

Download Windows 8 (for my 64bit MacBook Pro, I chose Windows Developer Preview English, 64-bit (x64)) from:

I won’t pretend to know the actual requirements here, but here is what I did:

  1. Install VirtualBox (straightforward)
  2. Click “New” in the upper right
  3. Give the VM a name and specify Windows 7 64bit as the Windows version
  4. On the next wizard screen I jacked the memory from the 512 default to 1024
  5. For Virtual Hard Disk, I kept the default selection to create a new hard disk
  6. For the type of hard disk, I again kept the default selection of VDI (VirtualBox Disk Image)
  7. I let the storage details default too (Dynamically allocated)
  8. And for the drive size, once more: default (20gb)
  9. On the Summary Page, hit “Create” and your done creating your VM
  10. With that new VM selected, click the Start icon on the top
  11. A First Run Wizard appears which will guide you through selecting a media source where you will choose the ISO file you downloaded from Microsoft at the link above
  12. Initial StartInstallation of Windows 8 is very straightforward and surprisingly fast. You should be aware that your account to log in is a Windows Live account which you’ll need to provide (or create if you don’t have one already)

I initially found navigating the Metro interface to be a bit of a challenge. A single-click on a tile does the job of launching it, but it may take a second or two so be patient. I’ve also seen it necessary to move the cursor away from the tile a bit once clicking before the launch takes place. To leave any application you launch the magic keystroke you are looking for on the Mac is CTRL-Esc. This will take you back and forth between the menu and the last application launched each time you hit those keys. If you right-click on a tile it will become checked and options to uninstall or unpin will appear at the bottom of the screen.

One of the first things I found I wanted to do was update the screen resolution. The Control Panel menu off the main page is too simple and I couldn’t find screen resolution. I could swear I found an option to launch the full control panel applet from there initially, but after I realized I wanted to reduce my resolution and went back I couldn’t find it again. So I did this:

Metro/Windows 8 DesktopChoose “Desktop” to get a more familiar Windows Desktop. The first thing you’ll want to do is hit what you think is the “Start” menu button on the bottom left to see a menu, but resist: that just brings the metro menu up again. Instead launch File Explorer, Click “Computer” on the left and the ribbon menu on top will update to include a “Open Control Panel” button. Hit that and you’ll be back in familiar territory (“adjust screen resolution” is on the right side under “Appearance and Personalization”).

You can also run Internet Explorer from the desktop  to get a more familiar interface to IE. When you launch it from the “Internet Explorer” tile on the main metro menu, you get a very simple view with the URL bar on the bottom of the screen. With a touch interface, I’m sure this would be preferable, but not in a VM.

To edit most applications running in the new metro interface, just right-click while the application is running and you’ll see options (in case of stocks the options that appear are “Add Stock”, “Delete Stock” and “Pin Stock”). You can drag and drop the tiles around to re-arrange them.

The two-finger gesture for scrolling works vertically but not horizontally. To scroll horizontally look to the bottom of the screen for a scroll bar. However on the main menu screen (above) two finger scrolling up and down actually results in a left to right scrolling action so that can be helpful.

Weather App

UPDATE: I recorded a new video and posted a new blog to update this for the latest Windows 8 Preview on ITNinja:


Posted by on September 15, 2011 in Tech


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AppDeploy Origin Story: Part 3

AppDeploy was still largely a discussion board until mid-2002 when I came up with the idea for the Package Knowledge Base. I was very excited about the idea, but was a bit discouraged that nobody I shared it with could see it’s potential. The concept was that the site would host a custom page for each major version of any software and on that page I (and hopefully others) would share any command line parameters, tips or tricks they may have learned concerning the deployment of that software. There had been plenty of discussions taking place at AppDeploy and elsewhere on the topic of how to deploy this and that, but the idea here was to have a page dedicated to each version of each product with nothing but shared facts– no questions or long discussions to scroll through, just useful tips. I’ve moderated every post since then and today I just approved tip number 7,071 so I’m calling it a success.

Even better, this turned into search engine gold. Soon if you typed any product name with the word deployment, install, automate, etc. you were pretty likely to see AppDeploy as one of the top results. That drove more and more awareness. More and more frequently you could find it referenced as a source for the answer to deployment questions all over the Internet, even in books. Plus most every deployment vendor I would speak to at conferences would tell me regularly, “oh, AppDeploy, I love that site, we refer clients to it all the time”.

By 2006 banner advertising was on its way out and the site was taking lots of my time and generating very little revenue. If I was to make this my profession, I had to do something. I had a couple of ideas from automating a way to print the software knowledge base as a book, to offering paid reviews, to giving people an option to purchase a paid account for the site. I executed the latter two concepts.

First up: paid reviews. I knew credibility was important here so I made a few things clear to advertisers who were interested:

  • Each review would contain both positive and negative comments. After all no product is perfect.
  • The review would be honest, not an editorial and only technical edits would be considered.
  • The client could read the review first and then choose if the review would be published or not published on AppDeploy.
I wrote about 20 paid product reviews and only two were so unhappy with my review that they would not allow them published. Each review was honest and when I would point out flaws or deficiencies, most companies were not hearing something they had not heard before and most would ultimately decide that the positive outweighed the negative enough to let it be published. At least for me, the couple that did not allow the reviews published reenforced my feeling that I was remaining true and was not selling out.

Next I implemented a paid/premium membership account for the site: for $40 I would put a specified user account in a group specially coded to hide the ads on the site and also provide access to a new video area I was developing. While the option existed, over 350 people supported the site though purchase of this “premium account” status. As a low-cost option, I was very grateful too hear many people were paying for it out of their own pocket to show support and I found that to be very encouraging. Incidentally, while the videos are free now, those that paid for the premium membership still see no ads on the site to this day.

I was putting a lot of time into the development of videos on deployment related topics. While I enjoyed doing it, between my full time job, a long commute, efforts to both moderate the site and generate this premium content on top of the increasing number of writing projects I was taking on, I was getting burned out and it was difficult to argue when people would tell me it didn’t seem worth it. That was when I came up with the AppDeploy Library.

I was using Microsoft TechNet in my work as a government consultant. I leveraged the DVD archive of knowledge base articles regularly because the secure environments I supported never allowed for easy access to the Internet. I decided I could provide a similar offering by generating an offline indexed, searchable, browsable copy of AppDeploy content that would feature exclusive video content. I invested in the development of the custom software and processes that would allow me to produce the searchable offline index, had special leather DVD cases made, purchased packing/shipping supplies, writable silkscreened DVDs and a DVD burning robot. I offered it as a one-off purchase or as a six or twelve month subscription. As it was something often expensed as part of one’s job, many were purchasing the six or twelve month subscriptions and in the first year I generated more revenue with the AppDeploy Library subscriptions than I made in advertising.

I had a process to create them, pack them and ship them but as much as I automated, there was still quite a lot to do and it took a lot of time to pull it off. Every month I would generate a new image, burn the disks, check the subscriptions, pack them and create all the needed mailing labels before carting it all down to the post office for shipping. It certainly was not a scalable solution, but I told myself that if it got too much for me to handle, then that would mean it reached a point where it could sustain me and I could quit my day job to work on AppDeploy full time.

About a year later in 2006 start-up by the name of KACE approached me about somehow licensing some of the site’s data for use in their product. I had reviewed their appliance based solutions in the past and they were a regular advertiser on the site so I knew them and thought highly of what they had created. Eventually the conversation evolved toward acquisition and when I flew out and met the KACE team I was won over. Not only did they seem like a very sharp group of people focused in an area I’d been watching for years, but they didn’t want to change AppDeploy at all. I believed that they understood the value of the site being independent and not tied to a product and that not handling it correctly could mean killing what had been built. I’m happy to say that was correct: I was provided some resources to re-skin the site and give it a more modern look, but I continued reviews, advertising and the branding was minimal.

However, as a growing startup I wasn’t going to have the luxury of focusing only on the community. Everyone seemed to be pulling the weight equal to that of a handful of people and I’d be no exception. I started out mostly focused on the site, doing some writing, adding some features and delivering webinars but eventually took on other Product Management roles until my work on AppDeploy became equal to that of the time I spent on it back when I had a separate full time consulting job. The AppDeploy Library was first to go seeing as how it took so much time to do. We refunded all outstanding subscriptions and I used the time to take on more and more projects like managing the development of the AppDeploy Repackager.

I enjoyed Product Management and have learned a lot during my last few years in that role. And just about the time I was starting to resent the shrinking amount of time I was able to spend on AppDeploy, Dell came along and acquired KACE. I’m happy to report that in the second year since that acquisition I’ve finally reached the point where (at least for a majority of my time) I’m able to focus on the community as my primary task.

The Dell acquisition was a second time that seemed precarious for AppDeploy. Many asked if it would be taken over or shut down. I’m happy to say the answer is not just no, but very no. But if I’m spending so much time on the community you might wonder where are all the new enhancements to the site!?! I had been planning for a migration from my custom ASP code to a managed framework like Drupal, but I’ve been able to do much better than that. Right now, my primary day to day is as the Product Manager for a new community to which AppDeploy will be evolved. Everything will be migrated and everything about AppDeploy will be better from how it looks, to how easy it is to use. Some great new technologies exist today that just didn’t when AppDeploy was put together and I’m very excited to take the community to a whole new level. We’ve got a great development team cranking away at a list of requirements a mile long and we are on track to offer up the results of this effort by the end of the 2011!

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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Business, Web


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AppDeploy Origin Story: Part 2

For the first several months the site served as a place where I would post what I learned on the job. I started to build some traffic and watched intently as the numbers climbed to what I considered to be an impressive 300 visitors per day. I started to see more and more technical questions surface, but I was the only one providing answers for about the first year. Then a couple of people started answering questions, links from other discussion forums started to pull in those that wanted to discuss deployment. It took about a year, but the site had finally become a place to discuss deployment and share tips. There were relatively few people engaged, but there was a small community now and that was my first goal.

One of the first offers I got as a direct result of AppDeploy was a couple years after its launch. In 2002, I was asked to speak at a user group in Chicago which didn’t pay but did include travel/expenses and was my first trip to get in front of a crowd with “founder of AppDeploy” as a title. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip even though nobody raised their hands when I asked if they had heard of the site (a self-serving question I love asking these days).

Soon after I was coincidentally flown out to Chicago once again, this time by a company that claimed to be interested in buying AppDeploy. The company was Spirian Technologies and they were largely a consulting group specializing in deployment. It made sense, but it turned out that they were interested in doing “something” with the domain name and adding a deployment specialists to their ranks which was not what I was looking for. Still, the experience was fun and I got a couple of fun stories to tell out of it (which I’ll save for another day). Sprian is no more, but in doing a bit of research here I discovered a bit more about what happened to them: the company was acquired by SecureInfo in 2003 and it turns out that things seem to have ended baldy for them so in retrospect, I’m very glad I didn’t take that path.

I decided I was spending way too much time building static web pages when a couple of work friends turned me on to ASP which was (is) basically VBScript and HTML. I was just getting into scripting with Batch and KiXtart so it was relatively easy to pick up. Soon I had a site where I could add new products and information in just a couple of minutes as opposed to the half hour or so it was taking me to do so manually. This let me grow the content on the site much more quickly and with that content naturally came more and more relevant visitors from the search engines. Much of that original code is still in place today and despite some suffering a couple of SQL injection attacks in 2007 it has proven itself reliable.

With the dream of having the site become my full time job, I needed to find a way to make some money with it while not pushing people away from the site. A simple banner seemed logical and I got interest from smaller deployment products early on. I didn’t know what to charge, and as a niche site the pay per click model just didn’t make sense. I decided I would offer statistics to anyone who asked, but would go with a flat monthly rate. At one point the site had a top, left and bottom banner as well as a top and bottom newsletter placement. There were months I had only a couple of clients, and other times I was full up. In order to collect money I needed to make it official and establish a real business so I created RWK Systems (based on my initials– I know, very original). I opened a bank account and remember one of my very first deposits was from InstallShield who purchased a top header banner for twelve hundred bucks. This was for one full year, but the banners were set up as such that I could have a few different clients rotating in the position. So with no guarantee as to traffic, any given month could see anywhere from one hundred percent of the traffic to one fourth based on the number of clients that month.

Google Adwords were very effective the first year it was available. Then I found that I was competing with myself because perspective clients could target my site via Adwords instead of advertising with me directly. Selling was never my thing though, and while there have been dozens of advertising clients over the years, it is really due to the niche area on which the site is focused and not my efforts to secure advertisers. With so few specialized locations online where one could target systems deployment specialists, every one of the advertisers the site has seen has approached me through the site directly and I never had to make a sales call to pitch the offering. My list of past advertisers reads mostly like a list of tech companies that have either vanished or been acquired away: Altiris, ActiveInstall, Camwood, Chicago-Soft, Cognet, EPiCON, INOSOFT, InstallShield, Intel, InsysTek, Lanovation, NetSupport, Network America, New Boundary, Pantaray Research, Pocket Soft, Previo, StorageSoft Solutions, Symantec, SmartDesk, Swan International and Wise Solutions.

Rod Trent ran the SMS area of the Swynk website– a hot community at the time which focused on Microsoft Backoffice Products. I guess he liked the idea of a deployment focused website and started mentioning the site as a resource at Swynk and in talks he would give at the Computing Edge/Altiris SMS conferences (which has since evolved into the Microsoft Management Summit). Rod had made a name for himself helping lots of people with SMS projects in running the site, writing and speaking on the topic. The SMS section of the Swynk site he was operating represented the bulk of that communities traffic and was pulling some impressive numbers. Having dealt with him a handful of times over the years, I can say Rod is a genuinely good guy. My first encounter with him was when he reached out and helped raise awareness of AppDeploy despite the fact that someone else might have seen it as a competitive site. I too never saw it as competitive as his site focused on SMS and operations and AppDeploy focused primarily on application deployment tasks. He broke away from Swynk and started a new community site that runs successfully today as myITforum. I think it was originally owned by Altiris, then he got it, then it was acquired and finally he reclaimed once again. I wouldn’t mind reading that site origin story 😉


Posted by on September 7, 2011 in Business, Web


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AppDeploy Origin Story: Part 1

I left my job at the White House in 1997 and started working as a government contractor in the Washington DC area. My initial assignment was a 50 node network where I was the systems administrator and was fortunate to find that my predecessor on that small network had implemented SMS v1.2. Overkill for a small network to say the least but a good environment for me to make a relatively simple job more complex (fun). I was in that position for several months and was feeling unchallenged. I pushed to be moved at the same time a large Unix to Windows NT migration was ramping up. I got the call to move to that project and decided to accept when I learned the position they needed filled most was that of an SMS admin. I was far from an expert but had done some reading and, relatively speaking, knew enough to step up. For some reason I thought it would make the job more fun to intentionally jump in over my head. I was holding my own, but as the migration got going, I found myself in meeting after meeting where a problem with the image deployment would be both acknowledged and dismissed with the comfort that they could just “fix it later with SMS”. So a lot was expected and demands ranged from aggressive to just plain impossible. While looking for answers, I was surprised to find that there were very few details to be found online. It was 1999 so it wasn’t like one would expect to find answers online, but I was finding next to nothing. I had a bit of background with building sites in HTML (stories for another day) and saw the opening as an opportunity.

My initial concept was to build a site that would explain the command line options for any setup program. The notion of crowd-sourcing was not really established yet and I had no visitors so that (the Package KB feature of the site) would come much later. Initially the easiest start seemed to be that I establish a home for deployment discussion without a focus on SMS. I was aware of a couple of other tools and knew that while there were a lot of product-specific knowledge needed, the one common thing among them were the applications themselves. I saw (and still see) each application as its own puzzle to be unlocked and that knowledge is something that spans any systems management product.

First thing was that I needed a name. I came up with a handful I wish I could remember well enough to list here. When polling friends AppDeploy was not a winner because the term App was not very common or well-known. I ultimately chose it anyway as the shortest of the .com names I was considering. A friend who I was training at the time was to be my partner. I had big plans and never would have taken them on single-handedly. As I started building the site I realized my first mistake: the partner I’d chosen to build this didn’t just lack knowledge in the space, but didn’t write and didn’t know HTML. It was slow going and everyone I mentioned the idea to would tell me I was the only one who cared about application deployment. I never believed that, but it was all enough that I would have given up after a few months but for a couple of things that stopped me:

  1. I had invested a significant amount of time developing the site and didn’t want to throw that effort away
  2. My partner decided he was going to move and backed out without my having to hurt our friendship
  3. I had my first encouraging call…

A product known as Cognet Manager was one that I found and documented in the early days of the site. The company contacted me via a conference call where several of those at the company conveyed genuine enthusiasm at my efforts. For them a clearing-house of deployment products gave them a desperately needed chance to be listed alongside competitors and there really was no such place at the time.

AppDeploy was seeing only a few visitors per month and this call gave me the push to feel like it could make an impact. So I kept at it…

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Posted by on August 29, 2011 in Business, Web


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The decision to “blog”

I like to skim magazines, but seldom do I really read them cover to cover, even if I am trapped on a long flight. However, I recently picked up a copy of Inc. magazine and really enjoyed reading all the stories of startups and first-hand accounts about things that worked and didn’t work. It got me to thinking I’ve got some pretty good stories to share. I try to keep pretty busy, but I’m anticipating this will be more fun than work and knocking out a story a week will be a pretty minor challenge.

I started making a list of experiences that might be significant based on jobs I’ve had and products I’ve created and was happy with the length of the list. When I went back and dug up all  the papers and books I’d written to generate a bit of a portfolio at I definitely enjoyed recalling the details of those experiences. During my eight-year career with the Navy I got to see a lot, especially having spent the last four of those years stationed at the White House. I then worked as a government contractor specializing in desktop management and during that time created, which was something that eventually got me several writing and speaking gigs (eventually AppDeploy would evolve to become my full time job). Between AppDeploy and my writing jobs I created my own company RWK Systems and another software company iTripoli, with my good friend Steve. I’ve tried several things along the way, some have worked well and others not so well.

At any rate, I ‘ve decided to record my stories here. If nothing else, I’m thinking a retrospective may help me see things better through the magnifying glass that comes out when attempting to document past events. And hopefully some of what spills out here will be something you may find interesting, educational or entertaining.

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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in General