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No Outlook in My Future: Migrating to Google Apps and Leaving my Blackberry Behind

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

After using Outlook/Exchange since 1997 and RIM/BlackBerry devices since 2004, I recently spearheaded a move to migrate TPC Healthcare (the boutique healthcare technology firm that I founded) to Google Apps and to Google’s Android devices. For a long time I considered myself to be a big Microsoft/RIM guy, but over the last couple of years something really shifted for me, not the least of which was spinning off my business into its own entity. Partially this shift was about saving money. At $50-per-year-per-user, Google Apps Premier Edition is a no-brainer for the small business owner who needs enterprise features. Prior to this move I’d been outsourcing seats on Exchange/BlackBerry Enterprise servers for $22.90-per-user-per-month, along with a Smartphone Enterprise $45/month/user data plan. I had become accustomed to these overhead costs, but when presented with the possibility of saving 50 percent while getting a broader set of applications, I knew I had to check it out. But cost was not the only reason I switched to Google. As a small business we have the opportunity to be nimbler than the large competitors we face every day. Having excellent communication tools and well organized data is a competitive advantage for us — as is the ability to have shared-anytime-anywhere access to our assets. And as I evaluated our options, I considered Google Apps to be a practical and unifying move that could be done quickly with limited cost outlay.

Read the rest of my case study @ Internet.com’s EnterpriseMobileToday here: http://bit.ly/drof2u

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Moving your Blackberry to Google Apps? Some things I learned along the way

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

If you ended up at this blog post, there’s a good chance that you are a long-time Blackberry user like myself who is either thinking about moving over to Google Apps or have already done it. Before we pulled the plug last week on our BES-based deployment for our boutique healthcare technology business, I did as much homework as I could. Oddly, in spite of the millions of users out there who have Blackberry’s tied to a BES and Exchange server, I was hard pressed to find anyone who had the complete picture of doing this type of migration cleanly. Frankly, I was nervous. Now that our migration is done, I feel compelled to share some things I learned along the way.

Our Goal: Retain as Much Continuity as Possible for Mobile Users
Trying to maintain a continuously synchronized wireless environment for our Blackberry users was an important goal for me. I wanted it to be as BES-like on the user side as possible. At this point, we’re most of the way there. If I were starting from scratch, here’s what our “To Do” list would have looked like. Note, that if you are not coming from a BES-based environment, this post is not for you.

  1. Migrate users Exchange data to Google Apps first. No matter how you slice and dice it, moving a mailbox that has been building up over many years can be messy, especially if a Blackberry is involved. The key here is create a single master repository and make sure things look they way you want it. There are many ways of doing this, including Google’s new Exchange-based mechanism; however, I found that using Google’s IMAP migration tool was cleanest for us.
  2. Clean calendar and contacts migration can be tricky. For calendaring and contacts, after many experiments we found that doing .csv-based uploads was also cleanest (and yes we tried Google Apps sync). As hard as Google engineers have tried to make this easy, Outlook/Exchanged based mailbox data structures can get screwed up over time, especially if users have ever had any kind of plugins involved, or have ever used 3rd party synchronization tools. I found that using .csv was fast and accurate with the least amount of heartache. There are some short coming to this (recurring meetings will get replicated, rather than retain their recurrence), but I’m not sorry we did it this way. If you decide to do the the .csv thing, make sure your users specify a wide data range if they want to preserve past and future calendar entries (e.g. we chose 2/1/2006 – 2/1/2012). If you’ve never done this before, you can try this recipe
  3. Break the connection between the Blackberry device and the BES. For the enterprise, the Blackberry Enterprise Server is the secret sauce for management, control, and security. Fortunately, our former Exchange provider AppRiver doesn’t lock down the devices security policy wise on their hosted BES. In the event, that you find yourself with devices that have a BES security policy, you will want the BES admin to send a blank security policy to the device. If for whatever reason you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have access to the BES admin, this link details how you can roll your own without help of the BES. We were determined to not completely wipe the devices, but if your users can deal with that, a complete wipe is probably not a bad idea.
  4. Prepare a machine with a copy of a recent copy of the Blackberry desktop software. In order to avoid duplication of messages during initial synchronization with Google Apps, I advise wiping the “messages,” “address book,” and “calendar” databases off of the Blackberry’s you’re working with. Again, the best data integrity will come from having one master and making Google be it made the most sense to me. If your users must have access to their old mail on their device, skip clearing the messages database. Some other things to keep in mind as you approach this:
    1. Turn off wireless reconciliation for each of the core databases. This link will show you how. If you don’t do this, you will not be able to clear the databases using the desktop manager
    2. Wiping the databases entails using the Backup and Restore feature in the desktop software. Not a bad idea to make one last backup of the device databases and save them to somewhere safe. Use the Advanced option described here to clear the databases from the device (this link only describes how to do the address book, but you can apply the process to the other databases too).
  5. Delete the “Desktop” service book from the devices. There are many sets of instructions on the net on how to do this. Here’s one in case you can’t find this on your own. This step allows the device to forget about it’s former partnership with a BES.
  6. Make sure to enable IMAP in the respective user’s Google Apps Gmail account. This is not turned on by default, so  you will need to go into the user’s email settings as described here.
  7. Get your users BIS credentials and Setup Up Each User with IMAP. If a device never had personal email addresses associated with it, creating a new account is pretty straight forward. If your users have already been using their devices for “personal” email, chances are they set up an account with the Blackberry Internet service from the device itself. Ask the users if they remember the users name/password combination (many will not, and you may end up calling the carrier to find out). Keep in mind that the end point for this migration, will be an IMAP connected Blackberry that uses the Blackberry Internet Services (BIS), and you will need to either create a new BIS account (for the user that hasn’t already done this), or associate Google Apps IMAP configuration with the device’s PIN. In practice, it is much easier to do from the web, rather than from the device. You can find links to the respective carriers here. While it is possible to do this from a wizard on the device, the web-based interface is much easier, especially if one using a touch-screen based Blackberry.
  8. Resend the Service Books from the BIS. On the newer version of the BIS, you will find this option under the “Help” menu. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, this kind of completes the housekeeping in converting over to BIS-based email.
  9. Install the Enhanced Gmail plugin.  This Blackberry plug in brings the Gmail experience to your device, allows you to archive emails, use labels, and look at threaded conversations in a gmail-centric way. If you ask around you will find that some people love it, and some hate it. Usability wise it doesn’t feel very Blackberry like, and some have reported that it’s slow.  I’d suggest installing it, as it doesn’t take away the normal methods of interacting with email on your Blackberry (the native email now configured for IMAP and Gmail will still work). Details on setting up the plugin are here.
  10. Install Google Sync on the Blackberry devices. This device side application will make your device whole again as it relates to calendar and contacts. In practice it works quite well and you won’t notice it’s there. There’s a link on this page that will send an SMS with a link to the mobile application set up. Once setup this runs in the background in provides a 2-way synchronization of the core PDA apps. Heads up, Notes, and Tasks will not sync.  According to Google the “automatic” setting (the default), syncs every 2 hours, or every time you change an event on the device.
  11. Call your carrier and change the data service for the Blackberry to the PDA plan, rather than the corporate or BES-type plan. In the case of AT&T this downgrade saved us $15 per month per user.

Free Conferencing Calling: You Get What You Pay For (Part II), or Yugma and Audio Quality

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

A couple of years ago while working on a web application development project with an outsource shop in India, I was introduced to a desktop sharing/webinar service called Yugma (pronounced “Yoog Muh”). It was amazingly free and also worked cross platform (good with Windows, Macs, and Linux users bi-directionally). After using the free service for a while, I signed up for their Yugma Pro 20 service for $149 a year as the additional features seemed worth it to me.

Audio Quality: Is it Us or Them?
In working across the time zones with our friends on the subcontinent we noticed pretty quickly that even through the desktop sharing worked great, the audio was inconsistent and of inferior quality. I initially chalked this up to our respective VoIP telephone system, but soon wondered whether something else was at play. I wasn’t sure, but didn’t have the patience to figure this out.

Since the web features were quite good, we began simply using our InfiniteConferencing.com audio service coupled with Yugma to do what we needed. This added some complication to those of us scheduling meetings, but this allowed us to get the best of both services without it killing us cost wise. In fairness to Infinite Conferencing, they do offer desktop sharing features too; however, the meter runs twice for those meetings (web + telephone), and they also don’t work across platforms for the desktop sharing piece.

Trying Again
This fall we revisited the audio portion of Yugma’s conference service as an experiment for our weekly sales meetings. We figured that even though Yugma’s telephone numbers are in South Dakota, since our VoIP telephone service doesn’t assess toll charges, it didn’t matter for us. This lasted perhaps 2 weekly meetings before we bailed in frustration. The lines in Mount Rushmore state didn’t reliably pick up, so we were back to the drawing board.

I ran a web meeting last Thursday and scheduled it as normal via the Yugma web app and forgot to inform the team that they should ignore the standard dial in instructions and we tried calling in via the standard Yugma number in the 605 area code. When it didn’t pick up after the 2nd call and 10 rings, we reverted back to the daisy chain method described in the previous post.

Since I’m a paying Yugma customer, I decided to complain. What follows is my email exchange with them.

From: Kenny Schiff
Sent: Thursday, February 11, 2010 5:18 PM
To: support@yugma.com
Subject: Telephony Issues. Dial in # just rang and didn't pick up

I have found the audio portion of your service to completely unreliable. We had not used audio for a while, and when I called into a scheduled conference today @ 3 pm EST (Meeting ID: 404166026), the phone never picked up on your end. I would consider this to be a major show stopper and I really have to think twice regarding using this with customers (BTW, I have the Pay version). I’ve never had a problem with the web portion, only with telephony.

Their response was a revelation for me (loved the Mr. Kenny touch), and not unfair, only unreasonable in the fact that that had I not complained, I would have not known that this was the only way to guarantee audio quality.

From: Support [mailto:support@yugma.com]
Sent: Friday, February 12, 2010 2:31 AM
To: Kenny Schiff
Subject: RE: Telephony Issues. Dial in # just rang and didn't pick up

Dear Mr. Kenny,

The teleconferencing service is a free service which we are extending to our users as a courtesy through a partner of ours. Unfortunately Yugma does not have much control over the quality or nature of the service. We understand your concern about issues with this service at certain times. We propose that you use our new Toll Free Option which comes with an attractive rate of $0.04 per minute per user, with a committed $200 per month (a total 5000 minutes per month usage), and sliding higher rate for lower volumes.

The charge for using a GX-toll-free number is paid by the meeting host, and all the incoming attendees join the call toll-free. With Toll-free Service, your meeting attendees call you free of charge. This way you can handle and satisfy more customers. A seven digit access code will be provided to the HOST and will be visible on main console of Yugma for all attendees. Subscribing to this feature will make all scheduled Yugma meetings as public meeting, which can be attended using the unique seven digit access code. To subscribe for Toll Free Service visit this URL https://www.yugma.com/buyyugma.php Once you have subscribed, it takes 24 to 48 hours to activate the Toll Free number. Please let us know if you would be interested in subscribing to this premium audio service. I hope this information helps.

So the short story here is that if you are attracted to Yugma’s services and anticipate doing both audio and web conferencing at the same time, don’t have high expectations for the free audio portion. In fact, per my previous post I would not hold out high hopes for decent audio service through any provider that offers it for free. In the case of Yugma, if you are using this regularly with customers, go with “toll free” option and pay the extra fees.

Categories: Business Services

Free Conferencing Calling: You Get What You Pay For (Part I)

February 13, 2010 Leave a comment

If you’re reading this and you’re in business that has any technology element to it, it’s likely you’ve done your share of web conferences or conference calls through WebEx, GoToMeeting, InterCall and a long list of competitors. 10 years ago you’d likely use an operator supported reservation oriented service provided by your business’ telco. Not today. Using Conference call service as a Google search term will yield you 68 million hits. This is a seriously crowded space, only further muddied by the rise of free services (especially for audio only).

Larger companies who need to host conference calls regularly are likely to stick with the big guys for guarantees regarding quality of service and supporting services. For smaller guys like me, it can get expensive very quickly, especially if you mix desktop sharing/webinar elements to your audio conference. But even audio conferences alone can be expensive. For example a recent call between my engineering team, a manufacturer’s technical support group and a customer ran up 386 minutes of talk time ($46.32). From a small business perspective, this adds up. Last month (not a particularly heavy month for us, we spent $113.20 on top of our regular phone and mobile phone services).

So Why Don’t You Use Those Great Free Services?
We’ve played around with various free conferencing services on the audio side, including: Rondee, InstantConference,  and Free ConferenceCall.com (yes there are tons of others). And although the services in some case came highly recommended, we found reliability and quality issues with each of these providers. Probably the most common thing we experience is users dialing into the call-in number and the service not picking up (e.g. just rings and rings), but we’ve also had call drops, and unacceptable audio quality.

And if you dig in and understand the business model of these types of services, you will begin to see why it’s hard for them to provide reliable and high quality services (this blog begins to explain what this is about). The folks in this space are in most cases skinny little businesses with some hardcore technology working on the backside, hoping desperately that they can get enough mass to have those pennies they share with local rural carriers add up to real money and enjoy a 4-hour work week 🙂

Sticking with What You Know (and cheapie workarounds that work)
So even though it can get expensive, we’ve stuck with InfiniteConferencing.com when we need to do calls with customers as it is reliable and customer friendly. For team calls, we often use the conference feature of our hosted VoIP system and daisy chain our calls (Kenny calls Bill. Bill puts Kenny on hold and conferences Paula in. Paula puts Kenny/Bill on hold and conference Mark in). Sounds painful, but it works, and is also free.

And while I continue to be open to alternatives, with conference calling being a regular day-to-day business operations, this is not something I can afford to skimp on.

Part II of this post will cover an interesting exchange between myself and Yugma (a desktop sharing/webinar oriented service) regarding audio quality.