6.30.2011

Thanks but no thanks, Amazon

Amazon.com. What a bunch of jerks.

Amazon is frantic to maintain their (to me unfair) competitive advantage that buyers don't have to pay sales tax in California. Because of that, Amazon's prices are automatically cheaper than those of brick-and-mortar resellers, or online sellers that have some sort of presence in the state.

Normally you might go to Barnes and Noble store to get a book or movie, or Best Buy for electronics — and buy today and bring your purchase home today. But with the special Amazon tax-free discount, consumers comparison-shop at Best Buy, but often place the order on Amazon in order to save 9% or so.

Thus, Amazon's desperation to do anything, anything, to maintain that sales-tax-free status whenever possible. (It already lost it in some states, such as New York, where it must collect sales tax.)

Some states are beginning to consider having associates to be the same as a corporate presence for sales-tax reasons. When a state moves in that direction, Amazon fires its associates in that state, throwing them overboard in order to remain a sales-tax-free haven. California is the latest state to move in that direction, and Amazon indeed has fired its associates.

A small non-profit that I work with has been an Amazon affiliate for some years. No more. Yesterday, the organization received the following email from Amazon, which spells the end of our small amount of income from sales referrals:

From: Amazon.com Associates Program
Date: June 29, 2011 12:19:58 PM PDT
Subject: Notice of Contract Termination Due to Potential New California Law

Hello,

For well over a decade, the Amazon Associates Program has worked with thousands of California residents. Unfortunately, a potential new law that may be signed by Governor Brown compels us to terminate this program for California-based participants. It specifically imposes the collection of taxes from consumers on sales by online retailers - including but not limited to those referred by California-based marketing affiliates like you - even if those retailers have no physical presence in the state.

We oppose this bill because it is unconstitutional and counterproductive. It is supported by big-box retailers, most of which are based outside California, that seek to harm the affiliate advertising programs of their competitors. Similar legislation in other states has led to job and income losses, and little, if any, new tax revenue. We deeply regret that we must take this action.

As a result, we will terminate contracts with all California residents that are participants in the Amazon Associates Program as of the date (if any) that the California law becomes effective. We will send a follow-up notice to you confirming the termination date if the California law is enacted. In the event that the California law does not become effective before September 30, 2011, we withdraw this notice. As of the termination date, California residents will no longer receive advertising fees for sales referred to Amazon.com, Endless.com,MYHABIT.COM or SmallParts.com. Please be assured that all qualifying advertising fees earned on or before the termination date will be processed and paid in full in accordance with the regular payment schedule.

You are receiving this email because our records indicate that you are a resident of California. If you are not currently a resident of California, or if you are relocating to another state in the near future, you can manage the details of your Associates account here. And if you relocate to another state in the near future please contact us for reinstatement into the Amazon Associates Program.

To avoid confusion, we would like to clarify that this development will only impact our ability to offer the Associates Program to California residents and will not affect their ability to purchase from Amazon.com, Endless.com,MYHABIT.COM or SmallParts.com.

We have enjoyed working with you and other California-based participants in the Amazon Associates Program and, if this situation is rectified, would very much welcome the opportunity to re-open our Associates Program to California residents. We are also working on alternative ways to help California residents monetize their websites and we will be sure to contact you when these become available.

Regards,

The Amazon Associates Team

Later that day, we received the coup de grace - and although the amount of money is small, the annoyance is large. Thank you, Amazon, for nothing.

From: Amazon.com Associates Program
Date: June 29, 2011 9:43:23 PM PDT
Subject: Notice of Termination due to New California Law

Hello,

Unfortunately, Governor Brown has signed into law the bill that we emailed you about earlier today. As a result of this, contracts with all California residents participating in the Amazon Associates Program are terminated effective today, June 29, 2011. Those California residents will no longer receive advertising fees for sales referred to Amazon.com, Endless.com, MYHABIT.COM orSmallParts.com. Please be assured that all qualifying advertising fees earned before today will be processed and paid in full in accordance with the regular payment schedule.

You are receiving this email because our records indicate that you are a resident of California. If you are not currently a resident of California, or if you are relocating to another state in the near future, you can manage the details of your Associates account here. And if you relocate to another state in the near future please contact us for reinstatement into the Amazon Associates Program.

To avoid confusion, we would like to clarify that this development will only impact our ability to offer the Associates Program to California residents and will not affect your ability to purchase from Amazon.com, Endless.com,MYHABIT.COM or SmallParts.com.

We have enjoyed working with you and other California-based participants in the Amazon Associates Program and, if this situation is rectified, would very much welcome the opportunity to re-open our Associates Program to California residents. As mentioned before, we are continuing to work on alternative ways to help California residents monetize their websites and we will be sure to contact you when these become available.

Regards,

The Amazon Associates Team

6.23.2011

Cutting waste by getting lean, but without getting mean

Look around. Think about how your organization gets things done. Is it the most efficient process possible? Doubtful. Is there room for improvement? Always. Are some parts of the process wasteful? Almost certainly.

There are many ways to improve efficiency, and many agile processes tackle the problem head-on. However, there’s always waste – in this case, anything that doesn’t add any value to the product as it would be conceived by its customer.

Part of that waste includes doing work that, upon further reflection, wasn’t needed after all, or which had to be torn out because the requirements changed. That’s why, in order to eliminate waste, you should defer decisions as long as possible – decide something when you have to decide it, and no sooner.

Once you’ve decided what to build (or you’re pretty clear on what the customer wants you to build), build it as quickly as possible. In most cases, the sooner you build it, the sooner the customer (or your business) begins realizing the benefits. Not only that, of course, but the sooner you deliver version 1.0, the sooner your team can send an invoice (if applicable) and then begin working on version 1.1 or version 2.0.

What I’ve described here are some of the principles of lean software development. There are other aspects of lean, but to me the principle of improving efficiency by eliminating waste is essential, and can be broadly applied to every development methodology, from a waterfall-style architecture-first system to the most agile teams. (It’s hard to reconcile architecture-first with decide-as-late-as-possible, but trust me, it can be done.)

If what I’ve described above sounds intriguing, let me refer you to two resources.

The first is “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit,” by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. This Addison-Wesley book, published in 2003, is the best introduction and guide that I’ve encountered.

The second resource is an upcoming SD Times Virtual Conference, in our “Leaders of Agile” series. Kent Beck, Aslam Khan, Henrick Kniberg and I will discuss how to “Improve App-Dev Productivity and Efficiently with Lean Software Development.” It’s Wednesday, Jul. 20, at 1:00pm Eastern, 10:00am Pacific. Please join us!

6.17.2011

What’s black and white and scanned all over?

Let us spend a moment pondering the barcode. Barcodes are everywhere. Everywhere. Every time you visit a grocery store, cashiers use barcodes to ring up your purchases. That is, unless you choose the self checkout, where you scan them yourself. Airlines send barcodes to phones for paperless checking. Barcodes track warehouse inventory and adorn corporate asset tags.

The new QR codes appear in magazine ads, bus stop signs, overhead billboards. Aim your mobile phone camera and click to visit a website. At Google IO in May, attendee badges had QR codes linked to vCard profiles — instead of exchanging business cards, you just zap someone’s card with your phone and load their info right into your contact database. After Google IO, I immediately ordered a new set of business cards with a QR code printed on the back.

Decades ago, computer magazines printed source code and data sets using a barcode format called Cauzin Softstrip. It let pre-Internet PCs load applications using a handheld wand connected to the RS-232 serial port.

Back in the 1980s I had a barcode reader for my HP-41C programmable calculator. While the HP-41C generally used magnetic cards for persistent storage, printed barcode sheets were used for ass distribution of binary information, including programs and data. (I still use the HP-41C, but the barcode reader is long gone.)

And don’t get me started about the :CueCat.

Barcodes are so ubiquitous that I’ve never given them even a second’s thought. They are simply a convenience when they work properly, an annoyance if they don’t scan. Thus, I was taken by surprise by the passing of Alan Haberman, lauded as the man who popularized the barcode, at least for supermarkets and other point-of-purchase applications.

While the late Mr. Haberman didn’t invent the barcode itself. he did push for the adoption of the IBM-invented Universal Product Code (UPC), which ended up as the standard for point-of-sale scanners. According to his obituary in the New York Times the UPC barcode made its public debut in 1974.

In a world of seemingly more advanced technologies – the mag strip, the EMV chip in European credit cards, RFID systems and the emerging near-field communications systems — the least common denominator is the low-tech barcode. Easy to create, easy to reproduce, easy to scan… what’s not to like? I’m sure we’ll be using UPC barcodes and QR codes for many decades to come, long after some of newer technologies have disappeared.

6.11.2011

Take my credit card. Please.

“We don’t take credit cards, sir.”

What? Get with the 21st century, my friend! Yesterday I was talking on the phone with a professional services company we use occasionally at BZ Media (which publishes SD Times and News on Monday).

We worked out the requirements for a straightforward project which would cost a few hundred dollars. However, for this type of project, it’s usual and customary to pay in advance. Thus, I was prepared with my American Express card.

Alas, this company doesn't take credit cards. They must mail me an invoice. I’ll have to approve and code that invoice, and give it to our accounting department. Accounting will process it, and cut payment during a weekly check run. After that, it goes out in the mail. Depending on when I receive the invoice, it may be a week or two (or three?) before the vendor will be paid, and presumably will begin the work I’ve requested.

Ten years ago, this would have been normal. Standard operating procedure. Today, no way. I was peeved, and let my sale rep know it. He replied, “I'm sure you've heard the expression ‘I only work here,’ but yes, point taken,” and promised to pass the message to his boss.

In this particular instance, the vendor’s instance on Neolithic payment processing is not a dealbreaker — but it's totally a pain in the butt. I don’t want to code invoices or processes checks at my business. I don't to write checks for personal expenses either, by the way. (After hearing my whining, the vendor said, “I'm sure you've heard the expression ‘I only work here,’ but yes, point taken,” and promised to pass the message to his boss.)

What’s the message for you, dear readers? Whether your organization delivers software or consulting or training, or even if you’re not in the IT business, this is a new decade and a new world. Many of your customers prefer credit cards – they wish to be agile and efficient, whether it’s an order being placed over the Internet, over the phone or during a face-to-face visit.

Of course, some customers will insist on paying with checks, and certainly those customers must be accommodated. Not being able to invoice or handle checks is just as bad as not being able to take credit card.

Yes, it costs money to accept credit cards. Suck it up. Budget those fees as a modern cost of doing business. If you are a small organization, you don’t need to have a merchant account or an expensive bank arrangement. Look at online credit-card processing systems like PayPal or Google Checkout – or even the Square. I’ve got one of these for personal use, it’s great.

Next time a customer says, “I’ve got my MasterCard ready,” the correct answer is “Number, please” or “Swipe here” — not, “Sorry, we don’t take credit cards.”

6.06.2011

Nobody is setting direction for our industry

IBM’s market capitalization has surpassed Microsoft’s market cap – for the first time in 15 years. While both companies trail behind Apple, IBM has re-emerged to become the largest enterprise computing company. What does this mean? Let’s start by looking backwards.

If your computing career began in the 1970s, or perhaps back in the 1960s, your IT worldview most likely centered around International Business Machines. While there were many formidable but smaller players, like Digital, Data General, Prime or Burroughs, IBM was the real 800-pound gorilla.

In the early 1980s, it was IBM again, as the newfangled IBM Personal Computer entered the market – to the delight of well-heeled hobbyists and enthusiasts, and to the confusion of those of us who lived in glass houses. The best use we could think of for the IBM PC was to stick a board into it and use it as another terminal for accessing our IBM System/370 mainframe.

However, as IBM PCs gained important capabilities, such as persistent storage (hello, IBM PC XT and PC/AT!), we began to find lots of businesses uses. Not only could small organizations use the it and “PC Compatibles” to run their offices, but bigger corporations could leverage new categories of software like spreadsheets and desktop databases to drive productivity. In those days, of course, computer were used for data storage and computation. The idea of using it for communication (beyond terminal emulation) was still new; most PCs were either totally isolated or connected intermittently via modem.

Business software developers flocked to the IBM PC and its myriad knock-offs, in large part because those were the only computers they had access to. Dev tools for the PC, from compilers to linkers to debuggers, flourished.

But then Windows happened – and Microsoft demonstrated that it understood how to woo independent software developers far more than IBM did. Windows happened, OS/2 crashed and burned, and IBM PCs morphed into Windows desktops. Around that same time that folks stood in line to buy Windows 95, Microsoft’s market cap zoomed past IBM’s. The paradigm had shifted, and Microsoft, not IBM, set the industry’s direction.

Today: While Windows desktops and notebooks still rule the enterprise, the rise of the browser unshackled the hardware and operating system. It reminds me of my old mainframe era: It didn’t matter which make or model terminal you used to access the Big Iron, as long as it emulated a 3270, 5150 or VT-100.

According to Reuters, an investor putting $100,000 into both IBM and Microsoft stock 10 years ago would now have about $143,000 in IBM stock and about $69,000 in Microsoft stock.

This doesn't mean that IBM is taking back the crown. It's not that IBM is ascendent, it's the Microsoft is no longer calling the shots.

So, if it’s not IBM and it’s not Microsoft… who is leading the enterprise technology industry? The answer, my friends is – nobody. It’s not Google. It’s not Oracle. It’s not Apple (who is certainly the trendsetter in high-tech consumer technology). It’s surely not Cisco or Intel or AMD or Amazon or SAP or any of the usual suspects.

Perhaps we’re all waiting for the dust to settle from cloud computing, or we’re in a transition phase for some other reason. But when it comes to enterprise IT, while there are certainly many interesting evolving trends, there’s no real leader. None at all.

About Me

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Co-founder and editorial director of BZ Media, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. Founder of SPTechCon: The SharePoint Technology Conference, AnDevCon: The Android Developer Conference, and Big Data TechCon. Also president and principal analyst of Camden Associates, an IT consulting and analyst firm.