Fun with browsers

Early Fun

My first browser was Lynx, back when my Internet connection consisted of dialing into an ISP using a terminal emulator (I still remember the keyboard shortcuts). I still think there's a lot of beauty in the simplicity of the Internet back then — text-only websites, IRC, BBS, Gopher, newsgroups, etc. Even minus the technological advances of the modern Internet, there was still a lot of great information out there, and I spent hours in front of a black-and-white terminal trying to soak it all up.

A big breakthrough for me was the discovery of ZMODEM, a terminal protocol that enabled me to upload and download files from the Internet. Now I could download all kinds of applications (OK, mostly games) for my computer. I experienced Christmas mornings practically every day — mornings when the night before I had started an 8 hour download over a 14.4k connection, and was overjoyed to find a new toy waiting on the desktop.

From there I upgraded to a PPP dialup account where I discovered the fun of browsing the web with Netscape Navigator 2.0 and reading email with Eudora Light. I was a die-hard Netscape fan throughout the first Browser Wars and just couldn't get why anyone liked Internet Explorer. Even after Netscape lost the war I switched to Mozilla, opting to struggle with periodic crashes and memory leaks of the beta releases rather than deal with ... periodic crashes and memory leaks of IE5.

Modern Fun

It's been a good week for the web, as Firefox 2.0 was released tonight and Internet Explorer 7 came out last week. The new browsers will definitely provide a better browsing experience. Sure, there are a lot of developers scurrying to fix broken web pages and applications. But I don't feel much empathy for them since I haven't run across any problems with my applications so far :)

I have to admit that IE7 is the first version of Internet Explorer that I've liked. If I had to, I could actually use IE7 as my day-to-day web browser — tabbed browsing was a must-have feature that came a few years too late in IE, and the updated interface improves a lot on the clunky IE6 UI. (I still keep IE6 around for testing, thanks to the evolt.org browser archive). Even though IE7 has its good points, it still doesn't beat Firefox in functionality. I'm really excited about the introduction of spell-check to Firefox 2.0, something that I've found essential in the time I've spent writing this post. The tweaks to tabbed browsing and RSS feeds are pretty nice too.

And Firefox is far ahead of anything else (yes, even Lynx or GET) when it comes to usefulness for a web developer. Extensions like Web Developer, HTML Validator, CSS Viewer, FireBug, ColorZilla, and MeasureIt add on magnitudes of power.

I'm already looking forward to 3.0.

Drivers eat free

I was driving on I-74 recently and saw an Arby's billboard:

Buses Welcome Drivers Eat Free

I thought it was a brilliant marketing strategy for bringing in extra customers — giving a free meal to bus drivers. What could be better for a fast food restaurant in rural Indiana than for a double-decker charter tour bus to drive through?

But then I thought about it a little more and wondered how effective the offer is. Bus drivers may be driving the bus, but how often are they making the decisions about where to go? On a chartered bus, doesn't the leader of the group riding in the bus usually make the decision where to eat?

This reminds me of some good advice from The Art of the Start for generating sales. Guy Kawasaki provides the insight, "Ignore titles and find the true key influencers." He gives the example of a company where a person with the title "Database Administrator III" was the one who influenced major 6-figure purchases for his company, not the people at the top of the org chart.

The billboard brings to mind another insight: it pays for bus drivers to be loved by their customers — they might get to eat free at Arby's.

Personal MBA

I've long been interested in pursuing an MBA. I majored in Computer Science and Mathematics in college, and was a class short of getting a minor in Writing. Despite my love of business, I didn't take a business class (unless you count Intro to Economics). I had wanted to focus on the classes that counted towards my major and figured business classes could wait until an MBA program, if that was in my future.

My interest in an MBA was fueled when I had the opportunity to be a part of the Maynard Media Academy while I worked at the Star. It was a two week management training program held at Harvard University. As part of the program, we had the privilege of being taught several classes by Harvard MBA professors. We even had to read some of the case studies assigned as homework in the real MBA classes. Despite the stigma of homework, I enjoyed reading the case studies, and enjoyed even more the time spent in class discussing them with the MBA professors.

An MBA might still be in my future, but unfortunately starting a new business means that it won't happen soon. It's hard to justify the expense during a period when cash flow is crucial. It's even harder to justify the time when I could spend those hours building the business.

A few months ago I ran across mention of The Personal MBA, which is essentially a reading list to "substantially increase your knowledge of business on your own time and with little cost, all without setting foot inside a classroom." The idea intrigued me. I don't think that reading 40+ books would replace the classroom experience of an MBA program, but I think there is some truth to the fact that one can learn much of the material through an informal process.

I love the quote on the site from Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon's character states:

"You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library."

As I thought about it some more, I realized that the MBA degree doesn't mean a lot to me. I won't get a raise or a promotion as a result of another degree, and it probably wouldn't help in acquiring new customers either. I'm most interested in the education, and using that to grow as a person and build a better business.

While I voraciously read business articles and websites, it's not often that I sit down to read a business book. I know that I would find value out of reading more often, so I decided this week to commit to reading everything on the Personal MBA list — even ones that sound boring, like Essentials of Accounting.

I already started by reading Art of the Start, by Guy Kawasaki and found it to be a pretty great read. I'm looking forward to the next 40.

Parking just got easier

I was in Cincinnati last weekend visiting my brother and we ventured to the Hyde Park area to grab some dinner. We parked in an open lot behind the restaurant then walked towards a machine where we had to pay for the parking and receive a printed parking ticket.

As we approached I noticed a man struggling with the machine, inserting money and hitting the change return over and over. He shrugged at us, "I guess we're out of luck."

But the machine wasn't broken per-se, it was just confusing. It doesn't look confusing at all, with only 4 simple steps clearly printed on the front of the machine:

The man was following the steps verbatim, but wasn't getting his ticket. I'm certain he repeated the process at least 5 times, with no change in results.

After a while my brother stepped up to the controls and tried to get it to work. No luck. Then we started to improvise, and the 5 of us standing around the machine each offered guesses as to what buttons to press.

After a minute or so, we got it to work. But we had to ignore Step 2 and add a few more steps before Step 4.

It's not uncommon to run into poorly designed software, but I would think that a little more testing would go into designing an interface for a machine like this. The shame is that just a few simple changes to the text and interface would have made this a much better product.

I'm also certain that if the engineers who designed the interface watched the guy having trouble operating the machine, they'd achieve a better product. My guess is that they watched each other test it, and came up with the "easy" instructions.

Although I pick on the engineers who built this, I know most developers have made similar faux pas at times, myself included.

A funny thing though — the tag-line of the company who built this is, "Parking Just Got Easier."

Was it really ever that hard to park?

[EDIT: Apparently I misread the company website as parking.com when it was really parking.ca.]

Location, location, location

I realized a funny thing the other day — I have had four clients this year that are located about a mile away from me in either direction off of 116th St.:

For those of you who don't really know much about the area — it isn't like 116th St. is at the center of an office district or anything like that. The area is mostly residential and retail. There are a couple small office complexes, but nothing at all compared to what's 5 minutes South in the Castleton area, where I have zero clients.

What makes it even more intriguing is that:

  • None of the clients have any connection to each other (that I know of).
  • I acquired each client through referrals from different people. It wasn't like I sent out a mailing in the area or passed out flyers in front of one of the three Starbucks along that stretch.
  • Each client didn't discover our proximity to each other until after we'd met, and it didn't seem to have any bearing on whether or not we would work together.