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IT Donut: best of 2014

December 17, 2014 by John McGarvey

2014 technology round-up{{}}In the world of technology, 2014 has been full high-profile security breaches, wearable gadgets and new domain names.

And as the end of another year rolls around, we take a look at what’s been most popular on IT Donut. So, what did you miss while you were busy running your business?

Stephen Fry leads the way with a new domain

Ever since 2013 — when the domain name system was changed — new domain name extensions like .london, .xyz and .technology have been tricking onto the market.

And in June this year, Stephen Fry became the first person to start using the short new .uk extension.

At the time, Nominet said: ‘Stephen Fry’s decision to switch from a .com reflects the appeal of shorter, sharper .uk domains.’

But if you search Google for Stephen Fry today, you’ll see the address that comes top is stephenfry.com. Sure, www.stephenfry.uk still works, but it’s not as if the actor has discarded his .com domain altogether.

A PR stunt? Surely not…

M&S shows how hard web design is

Building a good website is not easy. In July, we learnt that the new M&S website cost £150m, yet caused a dip in online sales when it was launched.

As we said at the time, it would have been easy to poke fun at this retail giant. But actually, this experience underlines how tricky it is to build a good website – even when you have a big budget and a powerful brand to draw on.

In fact, it’s very common for sales and traffic to drop when you launch a redesigned website. A soft launch and comprehensive user testing can help, but it’s usually best to stick with the status quo during busy periods.

Heartbleed hits millions of websites

In April, something called Heartbleed was big news. This was the name for a security flaw in OpenSSL, popular encryption software that protects hundreds of thousands of websites.

The breach could allow hackers to break into encrypted data while it was transferred online. OpenSSL underpins transactions and protects data on many big-name websites, so the danger was very real. 

Website owners were advised to check if their own sites were affected, while consumers were warned to consider changing their passwords.

You can use the Heartbleed site checker to make sure your website isn’t still affected. Our Heartbleed advice is here.

Our free IT policy templates prove a hit

We’ve long suspected that business owners struggle to create IT policies that are right for their companies. Those suspicions were confirmed when we relaunched our own set of free IT policy templates in May.

The set of downloadable documents includes policies covering data protection, internet and email use and social media. They’ve been downloaded thousands of times since.

People drop their new iPhones in beer

A new iPhone is usually big news. And when iPhone 6 emerged in the autumn, Revivaphone — which offers a kit to resuscitate liquid-damaged phones — was determined to claim the title of ‘first iPhone 6 to be dunked in beer’.

Sure, it was a thinly-veiled PR stunt. But it was also an entertaining one. It prompted us to put together a quick guide to saving your phone if it’s been damaged by beer, water or another liquid.

Intranets aren’t going out of fashion

Until recently, we were wondering if the term ‘intranet’ was going slowly out of date.

The language of technology changes fast, and like ‘cyberspace’ or ‘Website’ with a capital ‘W’, we thought ‘intranet’ might be passé in the mobile-enabled, cloud-powered world we live in.

As it turns out, we’re wrong. Intranets are as popular as ever. In fact, new cloud technologies are making it easier for smaller companies to build versatile employee intranets that people actually like to use.

That’s why our information about creating intranets was some of our most popular in 2014.

So, how did your business find its technology in 2014. And what do you have planned for the year ahead?

Posted in The internet | Tagged 2014 | 0 comments

Does technology reduce stress or cause it?

December 17, 2014 by John McGarvey

Are you getting stressed?{{}}You might not have heard the term ‘technostress’, but you might be familiar with its symptoms. People experience it when they struggle to adapt to new technologies in a healthy way.

You might experience technostress in any number of ways, from struggling to switch off when you get home, to compulsively checking Twitter and Facebook for updates every few minutes. 

The downside of new technology

When you stop to consider how quickly we’ve made computers — and smart phones, in particular — a central part of our lives, it’s hardly a surprise that we sometimes struggle to use them appropriately.

20 years ago, people wouldn’t have believed it would be normal to walk down the street while staring a small glowing rectangle. Yet here we are.

Technology has brought impressive benefits to both individuals and businesses. It’s created entire industries and enabled us to work in new ways. Yet it’s becoming harder to ignore the downsides.

According to some research, heavy use of computers and cell phones can be linked to increased stress, sleep disorders and even depressive symptoms in young adults.

Other scientists have warned that the light from mobile devices tends to be from the part of the spectrum that can disrupt our body clocks. And some pundits wonder if technology is leaving us with shorter attention spans.

As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, giving up technology can be stressful, too. Blimey.

Fighting back (with technology, obviously)

If technology is part of the problem, can it be part of the solution, too? Well, perhaps, if a new wave of wearable gadgets and apps can do what they promise.

Leading the charge are gadgets like Pip, the ‘personal stress management device’ that uses sensors to measure physical changes that may indicate your stress level. As you hold Pip, it claims to capture ‘electrical changes at the surface of the skin caused by the release of sweat’.

It records this data using an accompanying smart phone app. When used regularly, the idea is you can build an accurate picture of your stress levels and start to understand what causes you to become more — or less — stressed.

Be more mindful

Another trend for busting stress and keeping focus is mindfulness, a meditation technique that focuses on the present moment.

There are lots of apps to help you practice mindfulness and meditation, like Headspace, Buddhify and Mental Workout.

And it you want to stay de-stressed by spending your working days on track and focused, there are a number of tools and apps that can provide assistance.

Do nothing for two minutes is a super-simple idea, but if your thoughts are running in six directions at once, it creates a few moments of calm to get yourself back on track.

More forceful intervention can come from SelfControl (Mac only) and Focus Me. These programs can stop you accessing particular websites or software on your computer. Combine them with RescueTime if you want to see exactly where your time goes.

Finally, if you hit a point where technology is really getting on top of you, get out of there. Leave your phone on the desk and get outside for a walk. It’s not long-term solution, but half an hour of fresh air helps you see things from a new perspective and makes you feel better.

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Five ways to make Wi-Fi more useful in your business

December 10, 2014 by John McGarvey

Wi-Fi in action{{}}Recent research from networking firm Netgear suggests that most small companies consider workplace Wi-Fi critical for their business.

Of 500 companies surveyed, 75% said that having a wireless network has become essential for running their business.

Anecdotally, it’s easy to judge the popularity of wireless networks. Just see how many pop up on your smart phone as you walk down your street.

If you already have a wireless network, you’re bound to be familiar with its main uses. Being able to wirelessly connect to the internet or work on shared files can do wonders for your productivity.

But are you exploring all potential benefits of your Wi-Fi? Here are five ways to make your wireless network even more useful:

1. Give presentations wirelessly

Presentations run more smoothly when you don’t have to faff about finding the right cable or digging out an adaptor to hook up your laptop to the company big-screen TV or projector.

You can use your existing wireless network to connect your laptop to a big screen, but you might need some extra equipment to do so.

If your projector or display doesn’t have wireless capabilities, you can add a ‘mirroring device’ that will mirror your laptop’s screen on your large display.

Good options include ChromeCast, the IOGEAR GWAVR (yes, that is its real name), and Apple TV (best for Mac users)

2. Set up a guest network

Visitors to your business will almost certainly appreciate the ability to connect to your company network. But rather than give them the password to your main wireless network, it’s better to create a separate network for them to use.

This guest network can provide unfettered access to the internet, so your guests can log on as normal. But as it’s separate from your other company systems, there’s less danger of visitors being able to access confidential information (whether by accident or design).

Many wireless routers now offer a guest network option, so you can effectively run both a public and private network from the same piece of equipment.

3. Make calls over Wi-Fi

If your employees are in the habit of using their smart phones to make calls in the office, you could reduce calling costs by encouraging them to call via a VoIP app (like Skype), instead.

And if you already have a VoIP phone system, you might well be able to connect your smart phones to it over Wi-Fi. This means your staff will be able to make and receive calls from their main number while away from their desks.

4. Take Chip & PIN payments

Traditionally, getting ready to accept card payments has been quite a hassle. You needed to jump through hoops to get a merchant account — and then often had to pay a monthly fee to your provider.

That’s changed in the last couple of years. A number of companies — like Intuit — have introduced Chip & PIN readers that connect to an app on your smart phone and then authorise payments via Wi-Fi.

You usually have to pay £50 - £100 for the card reader, plus transaction fees of 2% – 3%. This makes these solutions good for occasional users who don’t want to pay a regular monthly charge or get locked in to a contract.

5. Print from smart phones and tablets

With mobile devices commonly used to review documents and emails, it’s no surprise that people want to print from them.

While it’s fair to say this is still trickier than it should be, it has got simpler. If your printer is connected to your network — either wirelessly or via a cable — there’s a good chance you’ll be able to print to it from your mobile device.

How you do this depends on the mobile device itself:

  • iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices use a system called AirPrint. See how to use AirPrint.
  • For Android phones and tablets, it’s usually easiest to use Google Cloud Print. See how to get started.
  • BlackBerry doesn’t provide a built-in printing solution for its handsets, but you can use a third-party tool like PrinterOn.
  • It’s a similar story for Windows Phone devices. KumoPrint is a highly-regarded app that should get you started.

Do you use your wireless network in any unusual ways?

Tagged wireless | 0 comments

Holding out for a hero: how to find the perfect developer

December 08, 2014 by IT Donut contributor

Holding out for a hero: how to find the perfect developer{{}}You need a hero. You’re holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light. And he’s gotta be sure and it’s gotta be soon…right?

You’re not alone. When it comes to hero developers, everybody wants one. Whether it’s a killer app that you can’t get off the ground or the desperate re-build your site needs, demand for developers runs high. In fact, one of the most common questions I get asked when talking to small firms and start-ups is: “how can I find the right developer?”.

My answer is simple – think of it like dating. Hiring a developer can seem at best slightly daunting and at worst a potential minefield (just like dating). However, when you apply certain strategies to narrow your search down to the right kinds of people, you increase your chances of success (also like dating). And finally, finding a developer can be done online (exactly like dating).

Here are six ways to help you find the perfect developer:

1. Know what you want

Whether you’re creating a profile for match.com or writing a technical brief, clarity and details are important. Nobody responds to a dating profile that says “nice guy looking for nice girl”. It’s too vague, too generic and too dull. Ditto with developers. I often see briefs along the lines of, “I need a really smart app that will change the way people exercise. Must look really slick.” No serious developer is going to give that the time of day and you’ll just get generic proposals back from people who probably don’t have the right skill set anyway.

Instead, take the time to work out exactly what you need and describe it in as much detail as you can. Explain what you’re trying to achieve and the issues you’ve had so far – good developers love problem-solving.

If you don’t have the technical expertise to write a really great brief your first job should be to find someone who can help you craft the brief before it even gets to a developer. If it isn’t clear to you, it won’t be to them.

2. Look outside your immediate circle

As with dating, it pays to widen the search area. Matt Mullenweg, ceo of WordPress, says 99% of the talent in the world is outside the major hubs. If you can’t find the skills you need in your immediate vicinity that’s not a problem – lots of development jobs can be done remotely.

On Elance and oDesk there are around nine million freelancers working with more than two million businesses across the world – maybe your ideal match is in Chicago, Sydney or Dublin. Unlike with dating, distance need not be a barrier.

3. Flattery gets you everywhere

Good developers are in demand and can afford to pick and choose their projects. Naturally they will pick the ones that sound interesting, well thought out and that fit their skill set. Select carefully and explain why you have singled them out.

On Elance there is an option to post a job privately and invite specific freelancers to bid on it. Stipulate exactly why you would like that particular developer to work on your project. Was it something in their profile that you thought was relevant? Did you like the work they did on an app or a website? Be genuine. Woo them.

4. First impressions count

Turning up to first date shouldn’t require a new suit or designer dress but a little bit of effort goes a long way. The first contact with a new developer needs to create the right impression. Whether it’s an email, a Skype call or the proposal you are sending them online, first impressions count.

Be friendly (people always prefer to work with people they like), be professional and be excited and passionate about your business and what you’re trying to achieve. Getting any collaborator (developer or not) engaged in your project is half the battle.

5. Don’t get hitched on the second date

Marry in haste, repent at leisure applies just as much for recruitment as it does for dating. When you first start working with someone, start small. You wouldn’t suggest a three-week holiday for a second date; equally don’t launch into an enormous technical project with someone you’ve never worked with before.

Break the job into component parts, set milestones and review as you go. Trust me, this prevents much heartache (not to mention unnecessary expenditure) down the line.

6. You get out what you put in

As in relationships and life, you’ll get what you give. Communicate clearly and frequently (although not every second of every day – no one likes a micro manager – or a stalker). Check in regularly and don’t leave your developer wondering what they should do next or whether you’re happy with what they’ve done. This is even more important when you hire online – there is an art to distance management and communication is the key to mastering it.

Finally, when hiring a developer try not to be too prescriptive. While you should always have a clear idea of what you want, be prepared to be flexible too.

You may think you need someone in your office 24/7 but perhaps your ideal match can only give you three days a week at the moment. Better to have the right person and compromise on the other stuff. Prioritise your wish-list into “must-haves” and “nice-to haves”. And be realistic. You can’t build a rival to Amazon with a £1,000 budget.

After all, you wouldn’t write “must look like Brad Pitt” on a dating profile would you?

Copyright © 2014 Hayley Conick is country manager for Elance-oDesk in the UK & Ireland.

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On Cyber Monday, what’s your biggest website fear?

December 01, 2014 by John McGarvey

Website error{{}}The run-up Christmas is a key time for online retailers. In fact, today is the much-hyped Cyber Monday, often cited as the biggest day of the year for online shopping.

(You might recall that Amazon stole the show on Cyber Monday last year by announcing deliveries by drone.)

The next couple of weeks really matter

If you run an online retailer, there’s a good chance your annual performance hinges on the next couple of weeks.

It’s important to capture as much consumer spending now, before 2015 starts and people’s wallets go back in their pockets.

Although the logistics of fulfilling orders can pose a headache, a Barclays survey reveals the main fear of 51% of retailers is the possibility of their website going down.

That fear is grounded in logic. If your online sales total £2,000 a day — and assuming those purchases mostly happen between 9am – 10pm — an hour’s downtime could easily cost you £100 - £150 in lost sales.

A major outage could be disastrous at this time of year, forcing customers to look elsewhere and potentially hitting your reputation and repeat business.

Plan all year round

“The stakes are high during the holiday season, and retailers cannot afford to have their sites crash and burn,” confirms Paul Heywood, EMEA director at internet performance experts Dyn.

He says the best way to prepare your website for Christmas is to aim for optimum performance the whole year round:

“Providing a reliable online experience should be part of a long term, proactive approach.”

“Retailers are faced with the year-round challenge of fickle customer loyalty — if your website experience doesn’t match their expectations or is too slow your customers will quickly turn to a rival brand.”

What you can do now

He’s right, of course. Website uptime matters all the time. But it matters even more at this time of year. So to help your site remain available, it’s worth following these four tips:

  • Avoid big changes. When M&S changed its website earlier this year, sales dropped by 8%. When you make sweeping changes to a site, it's common for conversion rates to drop temporarily while customers adjust. So if you’re planning to launch a redesigned website, hold off until 2015.
  • Check your hosting and domain names. You don’t want your site to be suspended because your domain expires or you hit your traffic limits. Make sure everything is ok for the rest of December.
  • Know who to call. If something does go wrong, you won’t want to waste time scrambling to find contact details. Put together a file containing this information and make sure everyone knows where it is.
  • Arrange out-of-hours cover. Online shopping happens 24/7, so make sure someone monitors your site out of hours. And yes, that includes over Christmas, because Boxing Day is one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Finally, if you don’t already have it, set up website monitoring. Various services will send you emails or text messages to alert you to problems. After all, you can’t fix an issue unless you know about it.

IT for Donuts: what to do with your Windows XP computers

November 28, 2014 by John McGarvey
Microsoft logo{{}}

Image: Gil C / Shutterstock.com

IT for Donuts is our regular feature where we explain a tech term or answer a question about business IT.

Today, we explain what you need to do if you’re still using Microsoft’s venerable operating system, Windows XP.

No more XP support

In April, Microsoft discontinued all support for Windows XP. This means the company no longer issues updates to fix security vulnerabilities.

As a result, Windows XP computers can be a tempting target for hackers, who know newly-discovered problems won’t have been fixed.

Indeed, a bug discovered earlier this month may leave Windows XP machines open to attack.

Unfortunately, Windows XP use remains high. By most measures it’s still the world’s second most-used operating system, despite being 13 years old.

If there’s a Windows XP computer in your business, it could be the weak spot that lets hackers in. Read on and we’ll explain how to get rid of it.

It’s time to stop using XP

If you do still rely on a Windows XP computer, it really is time to stop using it. That’s true no matter whether your whole company uses XP, or if you just have a single machine running it.

Security risks aside, there are other reasons to upgrade too. For instance:

  • Modern operating systems offer modern features. The world has changed since 2001. Newer operating systems make it easier to access online services and can work more seamlessly with mobile devices.
  • Your computer might be getting on. It’s usually older computers that are running Windows XP. If yours is over five years old, there’s a higher-than-average chance it could suffer a hardware failure, too.

Still not clear? Just in case you haven’t already got the message: it’s time to ditch Windows XP.

Moving to a newer version of Windows

Most people will find it easiest to move to a newer version of Windows.

You could take the opportunity to switch to an Apple Mac or try another operating system like Linux, but for simplicity let’s assume you want to stick with what you know.

First of all, consider whether you want to replace your computer as well. If it’s more than three years old, this is probably a good idea.

If you want to keep your current computer, use the Microsoft Windows Update Assistant to make sure it’s capable of running the latest version of Windows. Most computers sold in the last couple of years should be ok.

Once you’ve decided whether or not to keep your current computer, you need to choose which version of Windows to upgrade to:

  • Windows 8 is the latest version and is widely-available. Some people have complained about its redesigned interface, but you can always use third-party software to make it function more like ‘classic’ Windows.

Most new PCs come with Windows 8 installed, or you can buy it from Microsoft and other retailers.

  • Windows 7 is the previous version. Although five years old, some companies are sticking with it because it’s proven reliable. Security updates will continue until 2020, so it has life in it yet.

As Microsoft is keen to move users to Windows 8, it can be hard to find Windows 7 for sale. If you’re set on it, speak to your IT supplier.

Check your software, too

Before you go ahead and upgrade, double-check that your business software works with newer versions of Windows.

Standard programs should be fine, but custom software or unusual packages might not have been updated for more recent versions of Windows.

If software compatibility is an issue, don’t bury your head in the sand. Even if you disconnect your Windows XP system from the internet, at some point it will crash or break down.

Finally, don’t be afraid to seek help. The risks involved in using Windows XP are growing. The longer you leave it, the more vulnerable you are. Give your local IT supplier a bell and you could have everything sorted in a day or two.

More Windows XP advice:

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