Tag: drupal

Friday, August 26th, 2011

A Few Words About: Online Applications, Free or Not

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A Few Words AboutAs I was writing the two previous posts on online applications, I discovered that one I just learned about was no longer available.  Earlier this summer, I was about to back up my life’s work to an online storage service, when I realized that their pricing had gone from $10/month to $49/month.  Last winter, the Moodle community was stunned by the sudden shut-down of the web meeting service, DimDim.

How can this be?  Why is this happening?

Well, you see, these online applications are typically in business to make money, just like you.  They offer free services as a sort of “free sample”.  If you like it, you’ll buy more.  What happens is that not enough people buy to justify giving away any more samples.  Perhaps the free-sample people take up more time and support resources than the people who pay for their accounts.  Or, maybe the application is so awesome that some bigger company decides it would be a competitive advantage to own that code.  They buy out CoolOnlineEditor.com.  This is great for the college kid who wrote the code, but not so great for those of us who were using his online services.  In some instances, a big, evil company comes along and buys out the really good application just so the rest of us cannot use it. Sad, but true.

For online services such as quick image editing, PDF printing, and screen casts, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to find another service. That shouldn’t slow you down too much.

If you use a social media service to aggregate your Twitter, Facebook, email, IM, etc…and that’s the only place you store your usernames and passwords, you’ll spend a lot of time recovering that information.  Then you’ll have to spend some time finding and learning another application.  This is annoying, but not too serious.

If the free (or inexpensive) photo gallery (or other document storage) system you use shuts down, this is just a pain in the neck if you have a copy of everything.  If you don’t have a back-up, well, that’s catastrophic. Of course, big name sites (like Kodak and Google) are not as likely to shut down and leave you hanging as WeRCheap4Storage.com, but they do have a right to change their policies.

What is the risk?

Anything and everything online is at risk (although some risks are so low you might as well worry about a meteor strike). With downloaded software (resident on your computer), the worst thing that can happen is that it is no longer supported. Online, any service can:

  • Stop taking registrations
  • Discontinue features
  • Start charging for features that were free or raise prices
  • Disappear altogether (shut down the site) for any number of reasons.  This is the worst because it can be without warning.

The more effort you put into building the content or customizing the online application, the more you stand to lose.  A blog with 100 posts is far more difficult to rebuild than an online gallery of the photos you have duplicates of on your hard drive.  The more you stand to lose, the more you should do to prevent any negative impacts on you.

What can you do?

For any and all of it, back up anything you can.  Keep it stored where you can easily recover it and restore functionality as quickly as possible.

For the more content-rich applications, the ones you depend on heavily, and/or those that will take you a lot of time to set up or customize to your needs, do your homework before investing that time.  Read reviews at CNET, PC Magazine, PCWorld, SourceForge, industry-specific publications, and of course, online searches for specific functionality.  Choose a stable application (one that has good reviews from users and IT experts alike and has been around “a while”) and back up your content regardless of how good they are!

Platforms such as Moodle, Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal are probably here to stay, but is your host?  Even though I know my sites are backed up and protected as much as humanely possible, I still back up the content, copies of which I keep copies on my local drives.  I would never risk a free hosting service unless it was associated with an organization I had plenty of confidence in.

We live in a rapidly changing world, which is both good and bad.  Nowadays, there is such a thing as a “free lunch” – for a time anyway.

The lesson is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  The more dependent you are on an application, the more important it is that you a) make sure you have a recovery plan if that application shuts down and b) investigate the options so that your choice of application is based on something other than “it’s free”.

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Friday, August 13th, 2010

Open Source vs. Proprietary: What does it mean to a small business?

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Most conversations I have with potential clients include this question: “If Moodle is free, what am I paying you for”.  I wrote the answer to that in a previous post.  I promised to explain what “free” means, how that applies to Open Source Software, and what difference it makes to a small business owner. 

Open source software is that which has unencrypted code – meaning that anyone can see the source files (where the software program exists), and freely modify it.  Open source software is usually free of charge, and usually comes with no guarantees that it will work as described.  This might sound horrifying to you, but most of us have experienced bugs, poor support, and even fatal errors with software that was proprietary and cost a lot of money.  Proprietary software has encrypted code; if you look at the program files all you’ll see are a bunch of symbols and you are not allowed by law to modify them even if you could figure out how.  The free in open source refers to freedom of use, not cost.  Contrary to popular belief, open source software is still “copyrighted” in most cases, which does more to protect the users than the creators.  That’s a good thing.

Why would you want to use open source vs. something that was “guaranteed”?  Well, here’s a perfect example.  I am so used to going into the source files of Moodle and WordPress (both open source with strong communities of developers and users), to change colors, images, and strings of text that I found myself staring at my Microsoft Outlook the other day, wondering how to do the same thing.  I wanted to use the “out of office assistant” but I didn’t want the subject of the email to read “Out of Office Reply”.  If Outlook was an open source application, I would find that string in the code and change it to something else, such as “Thank you for contacting us”.  This does not take a genius to accomplish.  It’s really simple; but it is impossible to do in a proprietary application such as Outlook.  Moodle and WordPress (as I have them installed with reliable hosts and responsible web companies looking after them) are far less quirky (for me) than Outlook. In my eBook, Moodle e-Learning: Questions and Simple Answers about Online Training, I tell the tale of the proprietary LMS software that promised to do everything but did nothing.  I couldn’t get my $5000 back, even with an attorney! So “guarantees” mean nothing to me.  

Now, you may be thinking “I don’t want to make modifications”, but you probably do want those changes made, even if you’re not the one doing it.  Your web designer, for instance, makes changes to existing code all the time.  When you say “I want that color to be a little brighter” or “Can you change the font to Arial?”, you are asking him to modify the code.  This is relatively easy in Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, and all open source applications…it can not be done in proprietary software unless the creators built in a button to change the color or font.  In order to make those “little” changes that you have probably become accustomed to (if you have a website), you would have to go through a lot bigger effort and spend a lot more money if you are modifying proprietary software.  That is, if it could even be done at all.

Some software companies, like Apple and Articulate, have proprietary software as the core and offer software development kits (SDK) so that the community can create “applications” that integrate perfectly with their software.  This results in some really cool stuff, as most of you know. 

As a business owner, you should investigate all of your options for whatever functionality you desire.  Sometimes, a proprietary application will be the best solution for your needs.  Chances are, unless you are a giant business, you will have to settle for the out-of-the-box applications if you go the proprietary route.  If you want more flexibility, open source will likely be your best solution in the long run. Before deciding on any application, you should obtain actual user reviews, with specific ratings on function, support, scalability, and anything else that matters to you.  You can find very reliable reviews of an exhaustive list of open source software at SourceForge.net.  This is where I was able to find Moodle, the LMS I strongly recommend for small and medium businesses, authors, trainers, consultants, and other entrepreneurs who want to offer online training to clients and employees.

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Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Web Considerations for Small Businesses Marketing and Selling eLearning Content

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Is it the packaging or the suds inside? This was a question raised in one of my marketing classes last century. I assume that it is still a topic of discussion today. My experience tells me that packaging sells a product for awhile, but if the soap doesn’t clean the laundry, it won’t be on the market for long.

So, what’s more important to you as you launch your eLearning site? Is it the website look? Is it the functionality (how many bells and whistles it has)? Or, is it your content, which is the product you’re really selling?

The answer to this dilemma is no different than any other consumer product or service: focus on what your customer wants and you’ll be fine. Generically, customers of eLearning want, in no particular order:

  • Easy access to the content
  • A reliable platform that won’t crash or eat work
  • Engaging content
  • Useful content
  • Validation of knowledge in the form of feedback (grades) and proof for others (a certificate for instance)
  • Interaction with others

Of all of the inquiries I receive from small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to put their content online, 9 out of 10 confuse the marketing of the product (eLearning) with the product itself. The best web solution for delivering an eLearning product is probably not the same as the best web solution for marketing that product. It is simply coincidence that they are both -along with selling of the product – hugely dependent on Internet applications. The distinction was more obvious 30 years ago when laundry soap was in a box, marketed on TV, and sold in a store.

I have two Moodle sites, one WordPress blog, and one Drupal site with 14 sub-domains (powered by WordPress). To set up all 18 URLs cost a fraction of what custom PHP coding to make Moodle work “seamlessly” with WordPress would’ve cost. My annual costs are minimal and each site can be upgraded without breaking any interfaces. I have the extra flexibility of having vastly different themes and copy on each one, different plug-ins installed, and targeting each one specifically to a market segment rather than having everyone search for what she needs on one “integrated” site. I don’t sell “products”, so I don’t need a shopping cart, but if I did, I would have a separate site with a shopping cart plug-in, or I’d have a sub-domain with something like Zen Cart installed. For the few products I have sold, I have used Amazon.com and eBay.

In future posts, I’ll discuss in more detail…

  • Platforms
  • Functionality
  • Content

…as they apply to teaching (eLearning), selling (shopping carts), and marketing.

My advice to all of you trying to “design” your eLearning and marketing sites:

Go the easiest route to please your customers. Avoid custom coding for anything except your theme (as long as it is upgradeable). Make the best “laundry soap” you can and package it in a convenient, pleasant, “paper box”. Concentrate on what you do best and you’ll do well!

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