Plain Writing Act: Kiss Your Tech Jargon Goodbye

Every industry has its own jargon, but techies seem to gravitate toward indecipherable gobbledygook.

Even if you take acronyms like DRM, LCD, USB and PDA out of the equation, there’s still a lot of obfuscating verbiage in an industry where people “dialogue” instead of talk, and call features “functionality.”

The social media revolution of the last few years has forced many techies to write like human beings. After all, if your blog posts aren’t understandable by the masses, you’ll know by the comments (or lack thereof). But a new federal law is poised to go a long way toward conquering opaque language. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires all federal agencies to use plain language in all spoken and written communications, including websites, documents, forms and webcasts.

The Act’s passage was a victory for Annetta Cheek, board chair at the Center for Plain Language, which was behind the push. Cheek says that although the private sector won’t be directly affected by the act, there might be some fallout. “The government always sets the tone,” says Cheek.

Time to Talk Plainly
If that’s the case, it might be time to take the communication on your websites as seriously as the code supporting it. Doing so might be trickier than you think. Cheek says she has met many brilliant people who can’t write to save their lives. “There are people who are decent but not great writers, who can become better, and there are others who will never be good with words,” she says. “There are some people who are never going to be writers. To those people I say, ‘Hire a writer.’”

If you’re in the first category and still have hope, here are some tips for clearer writing:

  • Study. There are several good books that can give you tips for clearer writing and communication. Your best bets: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, and Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C. Wydick.
  • Don’t rely too much on readability tests. Use rating systems, such as the Flesch-Kincaid readability test -- available on Microsoft Word -- sparingly. While the rating might be used as a blunt instrument, Cheek points out that the test is unable to distinguish gibberish from cogent communication. “It’s very mechanical,” she says. “It doesn’t catch the important stuff, like organization, but if you get a bad score, your writing probably needs work.”
  • Consider StyleWriter. On the other hand, you will find some tools out there that will help your writing -- most notably StyleWriter, which Cheek says is the best of its kind. “I use it. It always catches something I’ve missed,” says Cheek, who adds that techies tend to prefer such automated solutions. “They take it better when a software program offers them ways to improve rather than a person whose objectivity they may suspect.”
  • Know your audience. Diane Williams, a writer and editor at The Tauri Group consultancy, says that in tech, the level of discourse depends on the sophistication of the likely reader. Does your audience know what Ethernet is? Then no need to explain. If you’re not sure, then by all means, provide a definition or at least a hypertext link.

Write Like You Talk
The key to clear writing is to never write something you wouldn’t say out loud, says Williams. For instance, even the clearest speaker might send an email saying, “As per your request, I have reserved a room ... ,” though they’d never utter those words in real life. Most people don’t write the way they talk because they’re intimidated by the written word. “It’s a fear factor,” she says. “It takes guts to write something clearly.”

For an organization, a shift toward clearer writing is a way of underscoring support for customers. “Many bureaucratic writers, both in the private and the public sector, rarely think about the reader,” says Cheek. “They think about their organization, their boss, reviewers, legal staff, etc. I’ve had people come to me with a document to edit, and when asked, could not even identify the audience. It was just an assignment.”

When you put more thought into writing, then you’re focusing more on your customers’ needs. “In plain language, you can’t begin to write a document until you know about the audience. And you need to put their needs first,” says Cheek. “That, in fact, is a major culture change for many writers.”

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Why CIOs Are Choosing the Cloud

Just two years ago, when Ted Gorsline launched MobileVantage, the Toronto-based entrepreneur relied heavily on USB thumb drives and email to share files between devices and colleagues. “It was hard to keep everything and everyone up-to-date,” recalls Gorsline. “We always had multiple versions of one document.” And if you forgot your laptop or smartphone, you couldn’t access what you needed.”

Fast-forward two years: The staff at Gorsline’s growing telecommunications company can now access files anywhere, anytime and on virtually any device. That’s thanks to a product called Microsoft Office 365, which synchronizes content in real time. (So if you update a contact, for example, on a mobile phone, the info is updated on all employee laptops.)

That’s just one example of what the cloud can do for business. For some IT pros, moving business operations to the cloud can seem like surrendering control. But you can’t afford to overlook the advantages of working in the cloud. Here is a list of the advantages the cloud brings, compared to life without the cloud.

1. You can access your data on the cloud from anywhere.
The best thing about the cloud is that you can access information -- email, documents, photos, productivity info -- from virtually any Internet-connected computer, tablet or smartphone in the world. So if you forget an important PowerPoint presentation when you leave on a business trip, you can simply access the file from any device wherever you are.

Without the cloud: Your organization isn’t as nimble or flexible. You lose valuable time moving data between devices and have to deal with version control.

2. Your data is safer in the cloud.
Because your files are stored offsite -- available via a password-protected website in cyberspace -- they’re also protected from local damage, such as fire, a nasty virus or computer theft. Naturally, you’re going to want to choose a cloud provider that has a good track record of protecting user data. “IT security is about trust,” says Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author. “With any outsourcing model, whether it be cloud computing or something else ... you have to trust the outsourcer’s security, reliability, availability and its business continuity.”

Without the cloud:
Too often, small businesses don’t have backup plans in place for data recovery after a disaster. And they’re at risk for lost data when transporting data via mobile devices.

3. The cloud makes it easier to collaborate.
With cloud computing, employees can work together on projects -- such as colleagues tweaking a sales report -- all in real time, even though they might be in different physical locations. Cloud collaboration tools abound, and version control isn’t a problem.

The cloud can also help reduce email congestion and streamline communication. For example, rather than trying to email a number of large files to colleagues -- which could clog an inbox -- sending a link to click on instead is a smarter alternative.

Without the cloud:
The constant renaming of documents (v1.3, v1.4a, v1.4b and so on) can get confusing; you lose the immediacy of real-time collaboration, and you might end up footing the bill for travel as it’s more difficult to work from various locations. Large attachments can also be difficult to view on a mobile device.

4. The cloud saves you money.

Using a cloud provider also can save your organization money. The aforementioned Microsoft Office 365, for example, is only $6 per user per month. Or you can use a service like Microsoft’s Windows Live SkyDrive, which gives you up to 25 GB of online storage for free.

The cloud also offers scalability and flexibility. Expanding your workforce for a few weeks? It’s usually easy to add or subtract workers to a service you’re utilizing in the cloud. For small-to-midsized businesses, the cloud offers the opportunity to compete with far larger organizations, without committing big bucks.

Without the cloud:
You’re likely locked into more rigid service agreements, and you’ll probably spend more on personnel, hardware and data storage.

And if you’re an IT pro, will moving to a cloud service put you out of work? Of course not: Someone’s got to coordinate the cloud services your organization uses, work with cloud providers and integrate the cloud with in-house operations.

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AppleĀ’s iPad 2: A Smarter Business Tool

Like many other decision-makers in small to midsized businesses, Matthew Traub, managing director of the New York City-based DKC News public relations agency, finds his tablet computer indispensible for business. It acts as his mobile file cabinet, research assistant and display screen all in one, especially in his meetings with colleagues and clients.

“Where I used to bring stacks of paper just in case I needed documentation -- only to inevitably leave behind something I wanted to use -- I now have it all in one place,” says Traub.

That place is, of course, his iPad 2. Here’s why you should consider investing in one for your business too.

The Business Benefits of an iPad 2
The iPad 2 boasts a thinner, lighter design, and a new dual-core processor that’s twice as fast as that of the original iPad. For businesses, this means less waiting (time is money) and increased portability. The following features can also come in handy:

Dual Cams. For small businesses that do a lot of video conferencing, the iPad 2’s dual camera is likely the most significant advantage. It lets your clients see both you and anything else you need to show from the rear-facing camera.

“I think the iPad 2 can be a good business tool,” says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at the Gartner research and consulting group, based in Stamford, Conn., “especially for those vertical markets where people are standing or walking.” This includes real estate agents, insurance adjustors, construction foremen and the like. And virtually all industries could take advantage of live video calls via the front-facing camera

Smart Touch Screen. The touch screen interface of the iPad 2 is fast and efficient, so you can instantly access information. “This allows me to be better-informed and better-prepared, even between meetings, so I can stay fully connected,” says Traub.

A Gazillion Apps: From Flipboard , an instapaper with articles from various sources arranged into a virtual newspaper layout, to Penultimate , which transforms the iPad into a real notepad where you can scribble in your own handwriting, you’ll find many apps that help you increase productivity.

Data Security: According to Tim Bajarin -- president of Creative Strategies Inc., a consultancy in Campbell, Calif. -- security is always the most important issue for a business to consider when it adopts new technologies. But whether the iPad 2 is more secure than other tablets is “somewhat debatable,” says Bajarin.

When it comes to Web browsing and apps, the level of security changes based on who provides the app. “If it’s a Wells Fargo app, it would have the same level of security as online banking because the secure layer is on Wells Fargo’s side,” says Bajarin. As for email, Apple does back major email security standards, such as Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync.

Can the iPad 2 Replace Your Laptop?
An iPad 2 might replace a laptop under some circumstances, but you’re not likely to be able to convert all business functions to the tablet. Office documents, for example, don’t always translate well on the iPad 2 because some animations don’t work, and smart objects or macros get dropped here and there. “You have to make sure the file you’re getting from customers is exactly as they sent it,” says Dulaney.

Still, the iPad 2’s portability and size make it a valuable asset in some business situations. Says Bajarin: “The iPad 2 is the best offering at the moment. It has the best ecosystem for software apps and services. It’s the easiest to purchase, as you simply go to the Apple store or online. And from my experience, it’s still the best-designed tablet out there.

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All ipad2 images appear courtesy of Apple

Best Tablets for Your Business

Although the word "iPad" is becoming synonymous with "tablet computer," Apple's popular 9.7-inch touch screen devices aren't the only game in town. Tablets are poised to become a huge category for businesses and consumers alike,  even predicted to eclipse laptop sales by 2015, says Forrester Research. And we're only scratching the surface of what's to come in this space.

Here's quick look at the current landscape.

1. iPad 2

Cost: $499 and up

Apple's latest tablet is the current king of tablets. And for good reasons, including a reliable iOS, graceful user interface, long battery life, a huge ecosystem of about 500,000 apps and no shortage of hardware accessories (from fitted cases to wireless keyboards, speaker docks and more).

Unlike last year's model, the iPad 2 has two cameras (one for free FaceTime or Skype videoconferencing) and a dual-core processor (for faster performance), plus it's lighter and thinner. Apple's iOS tablets include Microsoft Exchange support and features like the ability to lock the device and remotely track or wipe data if it’s lost or stolen.

iPad appears courtesy of Apple

2. BlackBerry PlayBook

Cost: $500 and up

Built for business but ready for play, Research in Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook wasn't quite ready for primetime when it launched in April. A few post-launch software updates have made this 7-inch tab a lot more functional and fun.

Along with a powerful dual-core processor, stunning screen and intuitive interface (with strong multitasking support), the tablet includes out-of-the-box compatibility with BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). When connected over Bluetooth, a nearby BlackBerry's data -- such as email and calendar entries -- is viewable on the tablet but isn't stored on it. Therefore, IT departments can deploy PlayBooks to employees without worrying about security and manageability issues.

When it comes to apps, PlayBook falls far behind the Apple and Android offerings. However, RIM announced it would support both BlackBerry and Android apps over the coming months, but it will require some nominal coding by developers for the apps to work on PlayBook.

3. Motorola Xoom

Cost: $599 for the Wi-Fi version, or for Wi-Fi + 3G on two-year Verizon plan

The first Android 3.0 ("Honeycomb") tablet offers a boatload of horsepower, thanks to a fast dual-core processor and a gigabyte of system memory (RAM). As such, the 10.1-inch Motorola Xoom (pronounced "zoom") runs all your professional and personal apps quickly and smoothly.

Like the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Xoom has dual cameras and a Web browser that supports Flash sites. Memory isn't expandable, but you've got 32 GB of integrated storage for all your media and other files. Similar to other Android tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Xoom offers access to the Android Market for 300,000 downloads (as of May 2011).

Although Android has Exchange support, be aware that an open platform like Android might mean additional security concerns -- evident by a few dozen malware apps that were found to lift data off the device. (The apps were later pulled from the Android Market). As a result, Google promised more scrutiny and better security for its Android smartphones and tablets going forward.

4. LG G-Slate

Cost: $499 and up

The LG G-Slate might seem geared more toward entertainment enthusiasts than business professionals, but it's pretty impressive nonetheless. The 8.9-inch tab is the first with the ability to snap 3-D photos and shoot 3-D videos with the rear-facing 5-megapixel camera (dual lenses) -- so you can play it back on a compatible 3-D TV -- plus there's a front-facing 2-D camera for self-portraits and video chats.

5. HP TouchPad

Cost: $500 for the Wi-Fi 16 GB version

Available sometime this summer, HP's TouchPad will be the first tablet to run webOS, known for its elegant user interface and multitasking prowess.

Open apps are displayed in the form of large cards -- not small icons -- that you swipe to browse, tap to expand, or flick up to close. The webOS can automatically group related cards together, such as an email and a related Web page.

Unlike that "other" 9.7-inch tablet, the TouchPad can be used to answer calls or read text messages. The 1.6-pound TouchPad will include VPN support to connect to business networks (including Microsoft Exchange servers), as well as Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite to view and edit documents like Microsoft Word and Excel files. A front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera can be used for live video calling.

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Is NFC Technology the Next Big Thing for Business?

IT professionals, get ready for yet another acronym you’ll need to learn, implement and secure: NFC.

Near-field communication, while not new, is becoming a hot buzzword among tech-savvy consumers and businesses alike. This short-range wireless radio technology can turn a smartphone into a digital wallet, but that’s just one of many potential uses.

Some industry experts predict NFC will be the next big thing. And if it is, you might be the one who has to ensure your company is securely integrating the technology.

What Exactly Is NFC?

Here’s a scenario in the not-too-distant future: A customer walks into your store and swipes his smartphone near the cash register’s terminal to complete a transaction. Then, on a nearby bus shelter, he swipes his smartphone against a movie poster to download the trailer to the upcoming film. Later, he sees a friend on the street, and she tells him about her new job. The two swipe smartphones to exchange up-to-date contact info.

This is the promise of NFC, and with major smartphone platforms like BlackBerry, Android and iPhone onboard, it could soon be a quick and convenient way for your customers to buy goods and services. Note: Apple hasn’t officially confirmed iPhone 5 will have NFCs, but analysts say it’s more than likely.

When Will NFC Go Mainstream?

Many experts agree that NFC is an exciting alternative to QR codes, but a few obstacles must be overcome before the technology can be deployed by the mainstream.

“NFC is the one Holy Grail-like technology most likely to make the long-held promise of the electronic wallet a reality,” says Carmi Levy an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario. “Companies in all sectors, including retailers, financial services organizations and mobile carriers, are all salivating at the prospect of NFC-enabled smartphones that make paying for something as quick and easy as sending a text message.”

Tim Bajarin, president of the Creative Strategies Inc. tech consultancy in Campbell, Calif., agrees that NFC has a lot of positive buzz -- especially among businesses. “There are a lot of uses for NFC -- from getting you into doors at the office, which has been around for many years, to commerce, where things really get interesting.”

NFC Brings New Security Concerns

As with all new forms of wireless connectivity, security is NFC’s Achilles’ heel, says Levy.

“Any time vendors add new ways to seamlessly move data on and off of a mobile device, it’s only a matter of time before hackers and criminals figure out a way to exploit that new capability,” he cautions. “The fact that NFC will be a staple of the next generation of smartphones makes it an even more likely security target.”

NFC’s saving grace might be its relatively short range. The technology works within about 8 inches, so it will be more difficult for criminals to position attacks, explains Levy.

Security isn’t the only challenge that has prevented NFC’s rapid adoption so far. Levy and Bajarin both make mention that the technology lacks a unified standard.

Integrating NFC

If your business works in retail, you certainly don’t want to be behind the curve when it comes to NFC. Now is the time to educate yourself about potential options. It’s smart to talk to your existing transaction terminal vendor, advises Bajarin.

“I’d start by asking your existing credit or debit terminal vendor if they support NFC, and if so, what standards are they backing and what banks are they working with,” says Bajarin.

But even if your business isn’t a retail operation, you’ll have to think about NFC. Because NFC doesn’t require a PIN code, you’ll need to educate employees about the need to immediately freeze financial accounts if a smartphone is lost or stolen. And you’ll need to have a game plan to remotely wipe devices in the case of vulnerable data.

And as with most emerging technologies, you’re better off planning while NFC is the next big thing, rather than scrambling when demand hits.

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