Making email work for you

If you use email, you know how much spam rubbish and general clutter floods into your inbox. Some estimates place the amount of unwanted email traffic at 95% (fortunately most of it is filtered out before it afflicts you). Yet despite this white noise, email is still one of the most powerful marketing channels, social media notwithstanding. Most people still maintain an email address, and most still read their email. If you have clients and potential clients you'd like to reach, email is a very good place to start. But beside coming up with attractive, interesting content, you will want your email communications to look professional, and you will need to track the metrics of your various email campaigns. Vision6 and MailChimp offer users a low cost and easy-to-use entry to the world of email marketing. MailChimp in particular offers an absurdly generous free service to users generating less than 12,000 emails per month.  Plus they have a cute monkey avatar that dispenses cheerful backchat.

Patterns and Colour

Fascination with combinations of repeating images/symbols and colour seems to span cultures and appear in every historical period. The Mayans, the Egyptians, the Persians and Victorian-era Britons were obsessed with pattern, whether applied to walls, monuments, clothes or jewellery. Those similarly afflicted in the 21st century can use programs like this. While they may not be designing a grand tomb, they could at least generate a nifty wallpaper for their mobile phone or PC...

 

Online File Conversions

Sometimes a client might give you a file saved in an exotic format. You don't have the program required to open it, nor are you inclined to install it for this one instance. Now you don't have to — Zamzar allows you to upload your file and save it as something openable. In my case, I tested the service by uploading a Microsoft Publisher file and saving it as a Word Doc. Seconds later, the converted file was in my inbox. The basic service is currently free, with a paid service allowing online file storage and faster processing. The name of the service derives from the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

Making Word for Windows Work (sort of)

Designers love to hate Word for Windows. They are accustomed to layout packages that do as they are told. Word is packed with features that are rarely used and hides those which should be front and centre. It tries to think for the user (applying styles automatically, for example) and loads documents with unwanted character and paragraph level styles. Precise placement of an element on a page is often difficult, if not impossible. When imported into layout packages such as InDesign, a designer's first task is to clean out all of the crud. This includes removing unused styles, special effects, embedded objects and images and more, while taking care not to disturb necessary items such as footnoting, italicisation, bolding and indents.

In short, the best Word document is one constructed with simplicity in mind. Just the essentials and nothing more. For the daring, Google's stripped down cloud based word processor might be a good alternative way of achieving this end. For those utilising Track Changes, Indexing and Footnoting, perhaps Open Office might be another option.

Adobe Acrobat keeps on truckin'

Ebook and web evangelists have plenty of unpleasant things to say about Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). They say it is proprietary, a semi-closed system and antithetical to the freewheeling nature of the web. This is partially true (though PDF documents can be viewed via plugins in most browsers). Yet PDFs are a peerless way of preserving the intricacies of a print design layout for other viewers (without adding an extra layer of cost). The PDF carries with it typefaces and graphics and recreates the original design on other machines with almost perfect fidelity. The postscript language used by PDFs is the universal language of printers the world over. It is true that for web purposes, html5 would be a friendlier and more open road. Combined with new font hosting services, web designers may be able to assemble typographically sophisticated documents that display equally well on all browsers and for all users. Even the rather clumsy ebook formats may become more graphically capable. For the moment, however, PDFs remain the format of choice for print designers wanting to put content online without using code.

Twitter as a Newspaper

Billions of tweets make up the twitterverse. Users can follow a massive array of individual and corporate tweeters. Programs such as Tweetdeck  and browser-based solutions like Seesmic aggregate attempt to bring order to the twitterers that you follow and allow you to add your own tweets. However, the never-ending stream of undifferentiated tweets can be a little overwhelming. Paper.li takes your followed tweeters and makes them into a virtual newspaper, complete with short articles, graphics, videos and advertisements. It seems a little odd for something as new as Twitter to be using a simulation of the dead-tree newspaper format, but at the very least, it makes the experience of reading twitter content more aesthetically pleasing.
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Getting the Gist

Installed within Gmail, Gist attempts to leverage your contacts list by searching through your contacts and listing their online social presence: Twitter, Facebook and so on. Theoretically this might  allow you to identify commercial opportunities. Following installation on my Google Apps dashboard, Gist ran through my 2,000 + contacts and uncovered a surprisingly small number of clients/suppliers with Facebook and Twitter accounts. Perhaps commercial Australian users are not yet quite so gaga about social media as their American counterparts.
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Twitter and Time Management

The immediacy of Twitter is exciting, but the usefulness of it takes a little while to become apparent. Following celebrity lives is one predictable function, but more serious business uses can be found:
  • tweet news of your latest products/services to your clients (assuming they 'follow' you -- something that you can encourage)
  • tweet interesting links/information in your business field (don't just promote yourself relentlessly)
  • encourage informal feedback from your customer base, or from potential customers
  • listen to leading thinkers/businesses in your field, follow up on some of the suggested links/hints.
  • Programs like TweetDeck can help you keep track of everyone you find interesting in the world of Twitter.
Twitter's truncated, telegraphic form cuts a lot of the clutter found in the rest of the web. It also presents very low entry barriers, and if you only send a couple of tweets a day and read a few more, represents less of a time commitment than a blog. The web is a very important business frontier, and tweeters are often right out on the bleeding edge.
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Dynamic Live Brush

livebrushLiveBrush is one of the more fully featured programs available in the Adobe AIR format (see earlier post). While nowhere near as precise and powerful as programs such as Illustrator or CorelDRAW, it does have a few interesting aspects and the virtue of being free. Users select a brush from a fairly extensive list, and apply to a new page. The brush stroke is governed by the velocity and direction of the mouse, and the result is often very smooth, spontaneous and gestural -- far from the quavery line many of us manage when drawing freehand. The brushstroke has a mind of its own -- only notionally following the path you lay out for it. Each succeeding stroke has its own layer, and the artwork can be saved and exported at any time. Despite the many customisation options, Livebrush feels more like an interesting feature of a larger program than a standalone entity.  It's most obvious use is as a means of producing some loose, interesting brushwork and importing same into a drawing or layout package.
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Carbonite: Backup to the Cloud

Massive, extremely cheap online storage capacity and increased bandwidth are currently enabling a whole slew of new Internet businesses to carve out fresh niches. It's like the Cambrian evolutionary 'explosion', this time with silicon-germanium rather than carbon. On the subject of carbon, Carbonite is one of those interesting new cloud-based businesses. Users install a small program, indicate which folders they want backed up and then sit back while their data wafts into the ether, settling in the (apparently) secure servers of said company. The program only runs while your machine is idle and only updates changed files. If something at your end eventually goes wrong, the data retrieval process is very simple. Possible worries include the security of private data, and the rights of those from non-US jurisdictions if something did go awry. Users might also want to limit the amount they back up if their up/down data limits are fairly small. A graphic designer, for example, might balk at tagging folders with multi-hundred megabyte image files. Assuming Carbonite is stable and here for the long term, approximately AUD$65 per year for unlimited backup seems very reasonable.
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Adobe Air -- Rich Internet Applications

Adobe Systems is not quite in the same corporate league as Apple or Microsoft, but in terms of influence, it is a giant. The company has been instrumental in the development of page description language (Postscript) that dominates the printing and design industry, typeface formats (Type 1, and in conjunction with Microsoft, OpenType) used on tens of millions of computers, and the ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF) used to create platform independent documents. Hence, when Adobe strikes off in a new direction, many will take a keen interest. Adobe Air was launched in 2007, and is described as a "rich internet application".  While programs that use Adobe Air are installed to a user's computer and can run offline, they also add functionality via the Internet. For example, the Adobe Air-powered New York Times Reader allows users to download the entire paper, then access it even if offline. Adobe encourages software developers to write applications for the Air environment, and the Air Marketplace contains several hundred offerings. Productivity oriented examples include a job time log,  task managers, software shortcuts for all Adobe packages, Colour combination finder, and a surprisingly addictive graphics program specialising in dynamic brushstrokes. Adobe Air will have to build up a significant user and app base in order to survive. Web technologies need to have a critical mass behind them, or they tend to fade very quickly. Adobe claims 100 million downloads for Adobe Air apps, so perhaps the technology has a bright future.
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OCR, ASAP, OK?

Here's another neat little service on the cloud -- optical character recognition (OCR) for free. If you couldn't be bothered re-typing a two page printout with no electronic original, just scan the accursed thing and upload the file to OCR Terminal. The result can then be saved back to your PC in a number of formats. Their free basic account allows you up to 20 pages of OCR a month, which might be more than adequate for the occasional emergency.  Additional pages are charged on a per page basis, with the amount per page dropping with increased volume. After a certain point, however, one is entitled to wonder if a standalone OCR program would be cheaper. For any machine, anywhere convenience, however, this is a site worth bookmarking.
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More Free Lunches

In the realm of layout and design, Adobe products tend to loom very large. Most designers submit to their gravitational pull and use at least one and usually all of the big three: Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. However, there are plenty of people whose design needs are not extensive enough to justify the purchase of these quite expensive products. They recognise the diabolical shortcomings of Microsoft's drawing and layout programs, and hence strike out for an alternative. Scribus and Inkscape may appeal to those with a DIY frame of mind. Both are free, and both were developed by a fairly egalitarian community of developers. Scribus is a page layout program. Its capabilities largely mirror those of InDesign and QuarkXpress, but it cannot open files created with those programs (for practical and legal reasons). Those familiar with commercial layout packages will find the Scribus interface very familiar. Additional and improved features are added on a rolling basis, and new builds can be downloaded from their website. Inkscape is an Illustrator/CorelDRAW analogue. The drawing tools are adequate for all but the most demanding users, and files can be output into industry standard formats such as EPS and PDF. As per Scribus, the developer community surrounding the program is open and cooperative, and the program continues to evolve.
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Vectors Online

aviaryOne of the interesting aspects of cloud computing are programs that run over the web rather than residing on your PC. Examples include Google Documents, Google Calendar, online accounting solutions and online databases. Other programs install on your computer, but run on a constant stream of data from the web, such as Google Earth, or are strongly integrated with the web, such as Picasa. Google Docs and Calendar have fairly limited capabilities compared to programs that reside on a single PC, mostly due to limitations of bandwidth. In the graphics field, the tentative beginnings of a revolution may be underway. A company named Aviary is offering a suite of programs available online, no installation required. The programs include both an image editor and a vector drawing editor. The drawing tools are frankly primitive compared to those available in Illustrator or CorelDRAW. The fundamental interface is very similar, and it could prove a useful introduction to people learning to use vector packages. As a pointer to the future, however, it is very interesting indeed. If a user could access a professional standard drawing package online, would it make sense any more to install it on your machine  (assuming reliable internet service provision)? Updates and improvements would be instantly available to the user, projects could be stored and distributed online, and collaboration and file sharing would be much easier. The same reasoning would apply to photo editing packages and even page layout programs. The financial model would be subscription or membership based, with some offerings perhaps free in return for advertising placement. Bandwidth would have to improve dramatically for this to become a reality. Barriers to entry for new software providers would be much lower. Personal computers would become windows to a much larger realm rather than kingdoms in their own right. Perhaps the only role for the home computer would be to mirror the data generated online in as a form of insurance. Perhaps each of the programs to which the user subscribes could have an offline version for moments where the web is unavailable, resynchronising when the connection is restored.
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Open Office: like Microsoft, only free

openoffice1For years, PC users used Microsoft Office programs as a default option, and helped make Bill Gates very rich. Many PCs came with Office pre-installed,making it the path of least resistance. Despite their flaws, programs such as MS Word, Excel and Powerpoint went on to dominate the PC world. In recent years a real option has taken shape, and it is free. Funded by Sun Microsystems, the Open Office suite includes the following elements (with the Microsoft equivalent after the colon).
  • Writer: Word
  • Calc: Excel
  • Impress: Powerpoint
  • Base: Access
  • Draw: Visio
  • Math: Equation Editor
For the vast majority of users, the Open Office programs are equivalent in features, stability and useability. Files are saved either in the native file type, in the equivalent Microsoft file type and many other options. Plugins are available for Microsoft users who wish to open files from the native Open Office formats. Neo Office is a Mac version of the Open Office suite. Open Office reports that 100 million downloads of their software have been completed, with 50 million of version 3.0 alone. Open Office is popular with businesses and governments trying to cut IT costs. As an open source suite of programs, Open Office hosts an community of programmers, who contribute coding and capabilities to the project.
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