Tag Archives: XML

Telling the Story in the Third Dimension

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The bitter end of the Tamil Tigers has been fought away from the news crews, but not the satellites.

But did we make the most of this technology to tell the story of human suffering and the end of a 35-year guerrilla movement?

A month ago the U.S. government released satellite images apparently showing how tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians had been squeezed into the last tract land held by the LTTE, a story covered somewhat cursorily by the media. This three paragraph piece from The Guardian, for example:

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A week ago (May 12) Human Rights Watch issued its own report based on images it had commissioned from commercial satellites. The photos, the organisation said, “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area.”

The full report was available as a preliminary analysis, downloadable in PDF.

The report was carried by the BBC and others.

But I could find no one who had dug into the report to find a way to bring this remote tragedy closer to home.

For example, it could be as simple as double checking the images and coordinates given against Google Earth (easy enough; just enter the lat/long digits into Google Earth and see where they take you. HRW could have done a better job of providing the full coordinates here, to the full six decimal places–9.317999, for example—rather than the meager two they gave: 9.32.)

But a much better way of presenting the data lurks in a link on page four. Click on the link, and, if you’ve got Google Earth installed, the KML file (a KML file is a XML-based way of expressing geographic information that can be read by programs like Google Earth) will load a layer that tells the grim story in a different way.

The first is the most recent picture from Google Earth, dated 2005. As you can see, very little human habitation (click on each image to enlarge).

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The one below is from May 6. A dense city has appeared in the meantime, with its own streets:

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Four days later, most of it is gone:

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Toggling between these images in Google Earth is a sobering experience. Of course, such imagery does not explain what exactly happened to these people, but it asks tougher questions than any talking head can. And yet CNN chose to focus on that, and on familiar footage of the war.

My point is this: we’re now in a world of three dimensions. We journalists can see things our predecessors couldn’t.

If I was an editor I would have mined that HRW report until I’d found a way to use their imagery to tell the story. Buried in that single, 50 KB KML file is a wealth of detail:

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Which could have been used as time lapse, or juxtaposed over a map like the one the BBC used for its report:

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The bottom line: We as journalists need to understand this kind of thing better so we know what is possible, what is doable, and, if nothing else, to be able to know that when we see a link to a KML file, we may be on the way to a treasure trove of information to help us tell the story.

How to Convert Word 2007 Docs for Macs

A few readers have asked how to convert Word documents created in the new Microsoft Open Office XML Format with the docx extension so they can read them on a Mac. The answer: awkwardly.

Windows users have a converter they can download.

The Microsoft Mac team promised something similar back in December and yet haven’t, as far as I can see, delivered.

Into the gap have stepped some third party developers:

  • Docx Converter will convert a Microsoft Office .docx file into a simple html file. (It strips out some of the formatting, but now supports bold, italic, and underlined text. Left, right, center, and justified alignment etc.) A Mac widget is also available.
  • docx2doc allows you to upload a docx document It was free, but apparently seems to be in such high demand it now costs either $1 or $2 per document converted. Payment is via PayPal; upon payment you’ll receive a download link via email.  
  • Panergy’s docXconverter sounds more straightforward, but will cost you: $20 or $30 for two years of maintenance and upgrades. We should hope Microsoft won’t be that long to come out with their own converter.

None of these is perfect; we shouldn’t have to hand over money just to read a document. Of course the best solution is to save documents in the old doc format if you’re going to share them with other people.

Thanks to these sites, and the comments on them, for pointers: CreativeIQ, APC Mag an Lifehacker.

Watching the World Cup on a Widget

Opera 9 is officially out today, so perhaps now is as good a time as any to offer some FIFA World Cup 2006 plugins:

For Firefox there’s

  • FootieFox, which has actually been around for a year or so. Nice and small, it displays any soccer scores (not just those of the World Cup) in your status bar, and even gives visual and acoustic notification when goals are scored. It also provides a customisable skin, according to your team of preference. Kick-off times in local time, world cup teams in local language:
    Footie1
  • Joga – a slightly fancier offering from Google and Nikefootball, Joga is community of soccer players dedicated to keep the game beautiful. It offers a sidebar that provides updated scores, as well as videos and “communities”:
    Joga1

Both expect you to know your country flags, which is probably no bad thing. (FootieFox’s comparison of the two extensions is here. Certainly FootieFox seems to be lighter and faster.

For Opera there are a couple of widgets:

  • Goal 06 which gives you a desktop window with access to all the usual information, plus photos etc. Seems a bit memory and CPU hungry. There’s a Mini version of this for your smart phone (just open your WAP browser and go to: http://mini.opera.com/goal/ and follow the instructions. The Goal 06 World Cup content is available in the site Bookmarked as “World Cup 06” in the Opera Mini home page.)
  • gCalendar World Cup edition which I must confess I didn’t really understand. Information with these widgets is minimal and barely intelligible. Grumble…

For Yahoo!, there’s a special Widget as well as some more basic (or out of date) ones. For Macs there’s a World Cup schedule widget which you can also get here. Microsoft has a Soccer Scoreboard, so long as you don’t mind validating your computer first.

For Google there’s a special news page module. There’s a collection of Klips if you’re into that. (Not quite as inspiring as I’d hoped; Klips, I thought, would be tailor made for the World Cup). For your Treo there’s the Football 2006 Manager, courtesy of Palm and TinyStocks (thanks, Mark), which is very cool but could be a lot cooler.

In fact, at the risk of sounding spoilt, none of these really jumped out at me. But if you’re working and can’t watch the games live, this might be a second best. Of course, there’s always the BBC website, which remains highly popular.

Directing Del.icio.us

I’m blown away by some of the amazing, but simple, stuff people are doing with tags and Ajax and all these other things I only dimly understand. What’s great is I don’t really need to understand them, I just need to be able to use them and see them as useful.

Here’s yet another candidate: del.icio.us direc.tor: Delivering A High-Performance AJAX Web Service Broker from a guy called Johnvey Hwang:

del.icio.us direc.tor is a prototype for an alternative web-based rich UI for del.icio.us. It leverages the XML and XSL services of modern browsers to deliver a responsive interface for managing user accounts with a large number of records.

The main features are:

* In-browser handling of del.icio.us bookmarks (tested up to 12,000 records)
* Find-as-you-type searching of all your bookmarks, with basic search operators
* Sort by description, tags, or timestamp
* Ad-hoc tag browser

Simple looking, but it does a neat job of enabling you to look through your del.icio.us tags easily. John explains his plan thus:

I have always been intrigued by the idea of using a client-side application to act as a service broker, integrating various services like Google Maps, Flickr, and del.icio.us. Unfortunately, after doing the research, I found that the security blocks in the browser prevent normal untrusted code to poll sites that are not from the same server, so that grand service idea couldn’t be a reality. What I was able to do, though, was provide a service for a single website: del.icio.us.

Part research, part appreciation for del.icio.us, del.icio.us direc.tor is a prototype for an alternative web-based rich UI for del.icio.us. It leverages the XML and XSL services of modern browsers to deliver a responsive interface for managing user accounts with a large number of records. Try it out, and let me know what you think.

Nice.

Interview With The Guy Behind The Klips

In today’s Asian Wall Street Journal and in WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) I talk about widgets — sometimes called dashboards — as an alternative, or addition, to RSS.

Here is the transcript of an email/IM interview I did with Allan Wille, president and CEO of Serence, the company behind Klips:

The new Folio looks good. what’s the main new feature in this version?

Based on customer feedback, mostly from Content Providers, images and a richer content experience were very key. Much of that had to do with increased branding capabilities as well. So images are likely the BIG feature in KlipFolio 3.0. Enterprise to a lesser extent were also asking for images – charts, graphs that can tie into CRM or other enterprise applications

 

why would someone go for Klips over an RSS reader or similar device?

We are positioning KlipFolio as a dashboard – a personal dashboard for consumers or an digital/business dashboard for enterprise. We are not an RSS reader, and I see our paths moving appart, such that the two products –KlipFolio and an RSS reader– can exist in parallel. Klips are intelligent agents, where the value lies in their ability to inform and alert users of complex data. Klips are very good at allowing personalization of content, and persenting users with alerts to critical data. Of-course Klips can do news feeds, but the differentiation there is less apparent, and in some cases, an RSS reader will do a better job.

 

You seem to have a lot of European users. is that right, and if so, any reason for that?

KlipFolio started to have sucess with a number of key German news outlets – Tagesschau, Heise, Spiegel Online etc … this started back in 2002, when RSS was not quite as hyped as it is today. I believe this gave us significant visibility among other content providers in Germany and Europe, and has led to a very large European userbase, and subsequently a good source of leads and customers. North America was hesitant to try new technologies and as RSS was adopted by more and more content providers in NA, Klips were caught in a difficult differentiation battle. With the features present in 3.0, wer are looking to overcome these challenges in NA.

 

You’ve been doing Klip for a while, and while as you know I’m a fan, it doesn’t seem to have caught on as I might have expected. I don’t see that many Klip buttons on websites. any thoughts on that?

When you compare the visibilty of Klips to RSS, you are quite right – it seems to be taking a back seat. It is important for us to continue to get the Klip buttons out there, as this is a major marketing program for us. Again, it is a question of differentiation, of added value over RSS. 3.0 will be addressing much of this, and we need to aggressively make sure we educate key content providers of the value – a trend we are seeing though is that the major content providers are contacting us not for simple Klip publishing, but more so for the development of branded desktop clients …

 

Related to the last one, where do you see the market for this? it seems to be different fields you’re playing to, from the RSS on a stick audience, to the secure corporate feeds…

Interesting question – our markets are (a) Content Providers (ie: CNET, Kluwer, Penton, Spiegel) for branded versions of KlipFolio (branded KlipFolio, downloadable from their sites, with their Klips bundled), (b) Enterprise (Wells Fargo, Advanded Telcom, Curtiss-Wright, NDR) who license KlipFolio Enterprise as an internal dashboard, and, (c) Application Vendors (Connotate, BizActions) who wish to OEM distribute KlipFolio as their own product, sublicensed to their customers (in other words a channel play). End users are not a market for us – they are a source of leads.

 

Critics might say that because its proprietary software, Klips are a step backwards, locking users and providers into something that’s Old Economy.. any thoughts on that?

It’s not proprietary. Anyone can build and publish Klips. We publish our APIs, and a full SDK free of charge, and with no need to register. We use XML and Javascript. Konfabulator, Apple dashboard, and Macromedia Central (or Adobe now …) are more like Flash (as a mini-application environment). I must say it’s very cool, and I have tried it a number of times, but the inconistency of the interfaces have ultimately gotten in the way. I do think it will attract a number of Content Providers due to it’s brandability.

 

Where do you see this space (Klips, but also RSS, Konfabulator etc) going? Do they at some point move off the desktop?

I see a clear short-term trend where RSS readers are going to be melded into browsers and email-clients. I see them as becoming more capable of rendering html (and soon video, and audio), where their value as an “alerting” tool become less apparent. I also would consider this a very dangerous time to be an RSS reader client company – even for the forerunners, I don’t see competitive advantage, or amongst themselves, competitive differentiation. Longer term, I believe RSS will become an important background technololgy — and enabler — much the same way html is today to the web. RSS will not be a house-hold name among the early majority and on. There will be readers and alerting tools on various platforms and form-factors (and likely powered by xml/rss/whatever), but people won’t be calling it rss.

 

What are the most exciting uses you’ve seen of Klips? How do you use them yourself?

On the consumer front, I find the email watchers (the hotmail, yahoo, gmail and pop3 mail) Klips to be very exciting – they are secure, access complex data and present users with dynamically generated setup options. One the enterprise front, two very interesting ones are a company that is using a Klip to alert their call-center agents of key data from their CRM system, and a bank who uses Klips as part of their work-flow system to increase productivity and review speed. Where the Bank’s internal processes saw documents, policies, forms, and client applications being worked on by many employees and managers, the current work-flow system put the onus of moving forward on the employees and manager’s shoulders and relied on email to notify them when a document was edited, or in need of approval. We improved on this process by working with their work-flow application where each individual user is now alerted to pending documents, policies and applications via KlipFolio – it’s relevant to what the manager or employee is responsible for, and a popup alert ensures they take action, and of-course with a single click from the Klip, they can jump right into the familiar work-flow system.

 

So far there are only a few 3.0 feeds. what else is in the pipeline, feed-wise?

We will be updating all of the email Klips, the stock tracker, eBay monitor Klips and as with Betanews, we are working with a handful of key content providers globally to update their Klips. In general we will be focusing our efforts on more service oriented Klips, and encouraging our community of developers to do the same – part of our efforts to differentiate.

 

How do you make your money from this? And how would you characterise the journey so far? I first wrote about Klips more than 3 years ago, and a lot has happened on the internet since then. Are Klips struggling to keep up with these changes?

The hype of RSS has both helped and distracted our progress. On the one hand, RSS has educated the markets, and generated interest in desktop alerting. On the other, RSS has made our position more difficult to define – educating the market that we are not an RSS reader, but rather an alerting dashboard targeted for commercial purposes. The markets are more conductive – more educated, more financially willing, and more competitively driven. Also, I truly believe that in our space – alerting dashboards – we are positioned as one of the best players.

I’m not sure it’s a matter of keeping up with RSS – we support RSS among other standards. One thing we have found is that real-customer deals are hard to find the closer you get to RSS – it’s a very early adopter marketplace – lots of hype, not much real value or money yet. As we distance ourselves from RSS we find the client conversation is more focused on solving real business needs.

As mentioned in an earlier answer, we target content providers, online retailers and premium content providers as our KlipFolio Branded customers; application vendors, service providers, ISPs as our OEM customers; and corporations as our KlipFolio enterprise customers. We have a solid base of customers in all three areas and (with out venture funding I might add) are profitable.

You are right – lots has happened, but I think the interesting stuff is yet to happen. Same goes for Serence …

 

 

Thanks, Allan.

The PaperPort View

Further to my column in this week’s WSJ.com/AWSJ on PaperPort Pro and PaperMaster Pro, here are some e-mailed answers from Bob Anderson (ScanSoft Regional Director Asia Pacific and Japan) in response to my questions about PaperPort Pro:

1) What are the improvements in version 10 (PaperPort Professional 10) over previous versions?

A) Faster and easier folder navigation with Bookmark Workspaces and Split Desktop. Bookmark Workspaces allow you to bookmark your most widely used folders and quickly jump back to them when you need them. Using the Split Desktop you can also look into two folders at once to move files quickly and easily between them or to simply compare the contents of two folders at the same time.

B) A new All-in-One Search Engine and Index Manager for faster and more flexible indexing of scanned files and faster retrieval of documents you search.

C) PDF Support

a) PDF Create! PaperPort includes the capability to create PDF files from all of your MS Office documents or any other PC application with PDF Create! – just like Adobe® Acrobat®. PDF has emerged as the universal standard for sharing and archiving documents and images. The PDF format lets you send any document or image to anyone, regardless of whether they use a PC or a Macintosh® computer, and they can view and print the file – exactly as it looked on your computer – without the need to have the application that was used to create the original file. Now, there is no need to buy any additional PDF creating software – PaperPort 10 Professional does everything you need.

b) PDF Combine, Stack, Drag&Drop, Cut, Paste and Delete Manipulating PDF files is easier. Accelerates the creation and assembly of custom documents by mimicking the way you work with paper documents. Easily add or remove pages, reorder them or create new documents with drag and drop tools that making working with electronic documents as simple as working with actual paper documents on your desktop.

c) PDF Security PaperPort protects your information by allowing you to set security options for individual documents. Keep your content locked down by requiring a password to view or print sensitive information.

d) PageViewer PDF Rendering – Resolution Adjustable Customise the view on your desktop by increasing or decreasing the resolution of graphics in PageViewer mode to optimise PaperPort’s performance to suit your needs.

D) Superior document assembly capabilities that make working with digital documents as easy as working with real paper by using automatic conversion to PDF, Page Thumbnails and the Split Desktop. Page Thumbnails allow you to cut, copy, paste, delete and rearrange the pages of a PDF document. You may drag whole documents of ANY format (print capable) into the Page Thumbnails of a PDF document. The ability to assemble documents as easily as dragging pages or documents from one document to another is greatly enhanced by the Split Desktop that allows you to merge documents across two different folders.

E) Faster and more productive scanning with a new scanner interface that provides for “One-click Scanning” and “Batch Scanning” capabilities

F) PaperPort SET tools (Scanner Enhancement Technology) are on the desktop for fast document image corrections. The PaperPort SET Tools allow you to rotate, auto-straighten, convert document colours, adjust image colour, hue, etc. all with a right-click on any image document.

G) Unparalleled ease-of-use and accessibility to PDF creation functions, including password protection, integrated throughout PaperPort and popular Microsoft applications.

2) What kind of users, and usage, are you aiming at? Do you have any interesting customer stories about how they’ve used PP, or perhaps your own experience?

We are looking to provide comprehensive desktop document management solutions for individual knowledge workers in the small business marketplace or for functional workgroups in large organisations.

A) Document Management – Anyone that wants to eliminate the use of paper as their primary means of storage and retrieval will become more organised using their computer and PaperPort. This includes home, home office and any business application that currently relies on a paper process and is looking for a way to organise, find and share information more easily and efficiently.

B) Scan-to-Desktop – With the proliferation of network multifunction and digital copier devices, scanning has really become a mainstream business function. PaperPort Professional helps millions of professionals to eliminate paper and to streamline the way they work with all of their documents. With PaperPort, you can easily scan using any connected or networked scanning device including flatbed, All-in-One and Multi-Function Devices. PaperPort supports WIA, TWAIN and ISIS scanner drivers as well as important industry-standard formats including PDF, TIFF and MAX. Its unique ability to work with desktop, network and departmental scanners and even digital copiers make it an invaluable productivity application for organisations of all sizes. Users can e-mail, fax or send documents to repositories on a networked file server with a simple drag-and-drop.

We have many interesting customer case studies that are attached as separate files.

3) This kind of product has, in my view, remained quite niche. People still appear to be somewhat resistant to the idea of committing their paper to a scanner. Is this true, and if not, do you have any statistics to support your view? If it is the case, how are you going about convincing users to change their habits?

Document scanning adoption is increasing as improved, affordable networked multi-function and workgroup/departmental devices penetrate new market segments. Recent research by organisations such as Gartner Group and IDC shows that the adoption of scanners – particularly in the enterprise in a networked environment – has seen tremendous growth in recent years. Multi-function devices and networked or departmental scanners with automatic document feeders is the fastest growing segment for scanner manufacturers, growing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent a year (source: Gartner) while colour multifunction devices are experiencing double digit growth. These scanners are being used primarily for document scanning (rather than photo scanning as may have been the case in the past), and e-mailing attachments has become more commonplace than faxing paper documents. As these devices continue to grow in popularity, so does the need for document management software such as PaperPort that allows people to not only get paper into a PC, but also to organise, find and share that information once it is in a digital environment.

The popularity of document management software also becomes particularly evident when we look at our customer base – nearly 4 million people use PaperPort, and say that, after e-mail, it is the application that they use most on their PC. We do recognise that we will likely never see a truly “paperless office,” but there is indeed a need for document management software such as PaperPort that allows digital and paper information to coexist and work together more efficiently.

According to Keith Kmetz, program director, Hardcopy Peripherals Solutions and Services, IDC, “The proliferation of network multifunction and digital copier devices, combined with intuitive applications such as PaperPort, has finally made document scanning a mainstream business function. Products like PaperPort Professional 10 give organisations the ability to deliver the benefits of scanning, PDF and document assembly to every business desktop.”

4) Where do you see the future of this kind of product? Is it going to morph into other products that index users’ documents (Desktop Search, etc), and do you see any combination of products like PP and voice recognition? After all, character recognition and voice recognition would appear to be cousins, and ScanSoft have strong footprints in both areas.

PaperPort is an environment to manage all kinds of documents. Scanning, document assembly and desktop search are all critical components in the document management lifecycle. PaperPort All-in-One search is already a comprehensive desktop search tool allowing you to search all scanned paper, image and text document types including PDF.

So where in managing documents do our customers need the most improvements to increase their productivity and find value in the next version of PaperPort? Voice recognition is definitely an area of growth as the accuracy of the technology allows for greater acceptance. Document collaboration, distribution and the effective use of multifunction devices are all areas where there is still significant opportunity for improvement and productivity. More and more multifunction devices are replacing single purpose machines making scanned documents more accessible and therefore the tools to manage those documents at the desktop are in greater demand.

With regards to the character and voice recognition, ScanSoft’s optical character recognition (OCR) technology can be used to create an index of a document by converting the ‘picture’ of the textual information within a document into computer text. Similarly, ScanSoft’s AudioMining technology can be used to create XML speech indexes of every spoken word contained in an audio and video file; in short, AudioMining does to audio and video what OCR does to a document. For the enterprise, particularly in industries where recording telephone calls is a requirement (such as banking, insurance, etc), AudioMining can be used to jump directly to a specific location in a conversation. Public Web users could also benefit when searching for training videos, research talks at universities, government hearings and news conferences, etc.

5) The PP interface hasn’t changed much in a decade, arguably. Is this version a major GUI revamp, or are you sticking with what you have?

I’d say we accomplished a lot of both. We have a very large user base that is quite familiar with the features and functions of the program that are directly tied to the easy-to-use interface. We wanted to make changes that specifically enhance the productivity of document assembly, search, PDF creation, password protection and management to further the concept of “electronic paper” without compromising where our customers have already found significant value.

Also worth noting is that PaperPort is available in multiple languages in both Western and now in Asian language versions. ScanSoft added Chinese (Traditional & Simplified), Japanese & Korean with OCR in the native language to the product line-up during the later half of 2004. The Asian version is coming to market through our various customers including OEM, licensees and general distribution partners

6) Why is one not able to preview documents in thumbnail view (in other words, being able to see all pages of the document in thumbnail, while being able to see full size preview of a page in the same window by clicking on one of the thumbnails), a feature common in other programs as far back as 1998? I’ve always felt this to be a key weakness in PP.

PaperPort 10 features Page Thumbnails on both the PaperPort Desktop and within the PaperPort PageViewer. We have also added significant value to these thumbnails by allowing you to cut, copy, paste, delete and rearrange the pages of a PDF document. You may drag whole documents of ANY format into the page thumbnails of any PDF document for automatic conversion to PDF and easy document assembly (See PaperPort menu item “View:Page Thumbnails”).

7) Another weakness I’ve felt exists has been the OCR. Given ScanSoft’s strengths in this field, why is PP’s inbuilt engine not more powerful?

The features of PaperPort OCR are dedicated to specific tasks within PaperPort and are generally adequate for most business purposes providing an appropriate amount of value for our customers. To enhance the OCR capabilities a customer may add professional OCR speed, accuracy and value by purchasing ScanSoft OmniPage which will automatically upgrade the PaperPort OCR capability.

8) Where does Acrobat/PDF fit into all this? Both you and PaperMaster now support direct-to-PDF scanning, and products like Fujitsu’s ScanSnap use it by default. Is this the way things will go? Have they already snuffed out alternatives? What are the advantages of this, and are there disadvantages? Adobe’s interface, in my view, doesn’t make it easy for users to tweak, annotate or fix PDF files.

The greatest challenge to streamlining document-based processes in business is the fact that there are two incompatible dominant electronic document formats – Microsoft® Word and PDF. Microsoft Word provides professionals with a rich environment for document creation and collaborative authoring but the editable Microsoft Word format is not well suited for electronic publishing and online document storage. Conversely, PDF has expanded from its traditional roots as a design and pre-press tool to an electronic file sharing standard providing business users with a format that is well suited for the distribution, viewing and archiving of documents.

The result is that Microsoft Word is the standard for authoring and editing business documents, while PDF is becoming the preferred way of distributing and sharing business documents online. The pervasiveness of Microsoft Word (400 million) and Adobe® Acrobat® Reader (500 million) gives rise to the need for document management solutions that enable the seamless movement of documents between the two dominant formats.

However, traditional solutions for PDF creation and management, such as Adobe Acrobat, are not priced or designed with the business user in mind. The ScanSoft family of PDF products – PDF Create!, PDF Converter, and PDF Converter Professional 2, address this need by providing business professionals with the ability to more seamlessly move between the two dominant electronic document formats – Microsoft Word and PDF.

We extend this PDF support into PaperPort Professional 10 as well, by including not only Scan-to-PDF and the ability to convert any format to PDF, but also ScanSoft PDF Create!, which allows users to quickly create a PDF from any PC application, or merge multiple files into a PDF. We also continue to support and make available our own internal “PaperPort Image” format as well as supporting TIFF, JPEG, GIF and BMP as long as our customers require these formats. We also believe that a true desktop management system encompasses scanned file formats as well as popular digital application files.

Microsoft’s IE About Turn

Microsoft, apparently reacting to the rise of Firefox and criticism over security, has reversed engine and said the next Internet Explorer update would come before the next version of Windows, according to CNET:

Reversing a longstanding Microsoft policy, Bill Gates said Tuesday that the company will ship an update to its browser separately from the next version of Windows.

A beta, or test, version of Internet Explorer 7 will debut this summer, Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect said in a keynote address at the RSA Conference 2005 here. The company had said that it would not ship a new IE version before the next major update to Windows, code-named Longhorn, arrives next year.

More on the official IEBlog.

Of course, it’s not just about security. CNET points to complaints about the fact the last version was only available to those who already had XP or had paid for an operating system upgrade, while others have complained about IE’s lack of adherence to web standards such as CSS, PNG, XHTML and XML. To that I’d the tendency to develop pages, either on the Net or within Office, that can only be viewed with IE.

As one poster to the (rather pompous and PR-spun) blog posting announcing the upgrade put it:

But how long do you have to hear people scream and scream and scream that they need and want an updated IE? You play it as if you guys are doing your customers a favor! Get real! You’re only doing it because [Firefox] is gaining popularity.

Stick to standards and don’t add any MS proprietary bs to it and I’m sure you’ll win back a lot of the fans you’ve lost.

(For a glimpse of the legitimate concerns, as well as the rather, er, strong emotions elicited by the topic of browsers, the dozens of comments that follow the blog posting are worth a read. Reading them you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the IE developers who post to the blog; it must be demoralizing to get as many flames as compliments. And I wonder how many more were deleted for language. )

And while we’re on the subject, what I’d like to see next are companies — particularly those in banking and public databases — ensure their sites are compatible with non-IE browsers. It’s shoddy, lazy, and poor business practice to exclude users based on what browser they’re using. Perhaps we should be building a directory of those websites that don’t support all W3C–compliant browsers?

WSJ Gets Into RSS

I’m late figuring this out, but WSJ.com is now offering RSS feeds (I found out about it from reading Nick Bradbury’s blog). Of course, this is tremendous news.

The feeds number only 13 so far, and will only have headlines for non-subscribers. The good news: Walt Mossberg is available in XML. The bad news: the weekly Loose Wire column of which this blog is a close cousin isn’t. Of course, if you all write angry letters they might change their mind.

OK, I promise, that’s the last plug I give myself. I hate it when people promote themselves all the time. No, really.

Dogpile’s RSS Toolbar Is Now Out

The guys at InfoSpace tell me their Dogpile toolbar, mentioned a few weeks back, is now out.

It will search the web, search white/yellow pages, block pop-ups (who doesn’t, these days?), run a customized ticker (which includes RSS feeds), and let you search for stuff just by right clicking your mouse. Needless to say, it requires Internet Explorer.

This is what they say about it:

The new Dogpile toolbar includes a scrolling content ticker that puts RSS and Atom headlines right into your Web browser.This allows you to continually monitor the latest from your favorite sources whenever you’re on the Web. You can also turn off the ticker and view content feeds from the “My Content” button located on the toolbar.When you click on the “My Content” button, an expandable menu drops down to display all your feeds and headlines.

The new Dogpile Toolbar also makes syndicated XML content more accessible for mainstream Web users by simplifying the location and accessing of  feeds. Using the automated content scanner, new feeds can be added to the toolbar in two simple steps.Users simply visit a Web site and select “Add Content” from a drop down menu located on the toolbar to view a list of available feeds from that site.To add feeds, users select any number from those available and add them with the click of a button.

Sounds like it’s well worth checking out.

Could Plaxo Be Phished?

(For more discussion, and expansion of some points in this posting, go here.)

For those folk already concerned about privacy with Plaxo’s contact updating service, this is not good news.

ZDNet reports that Plaxo has “plugged a serious security hole in its Web site on Monday that left its members’ contact lists vulnerable to be stolen, modified or deleted.” The security flaw, which was discovered by British-based Web application security company Lodoga, was reported to Plaxo on Monday evening. Lodoga’s security test engineer Jeremy Wood told ZDNet it took him less than an hour after discovering the weakness to build an attack script that could exploit the vulnerability. The attack uses a form of phishing — spoofing the website’s sign-on page to extract passwords — which could then be used to access their account.

Plaxo told ZDNet UK that the Web site was fixed a few hours after the problem was highlighted and was “fairly certain” that the vulnerability had not been exploited by anyone. There was no information about this on Plaxo’s website at the time of writing this, a few days after the event. (I think there should be. Their last piece of ‘news’ was on December 17 2003, about reaching the 1,000,000 user mark. Plaxo should, in my view, do a better job of informing its users of security issues, as much as about how many users it has signed up.) This is, needless to say, a bit scary. As ZDNet points out, Plaxo are almost certainly not alone in this vulnerability, but it’s absolutely crucial that they, and other companies that store user data, are ahead of the curve on security. Since a lot of phishing attacks are based on targeted social engineering  – figuring out enough about you so their lure is persuasive — the detailed kind of information about individuals stored on Plaxo’s servers would be gold to a phisher.

Which echoes the question raised by someone who posted a comment to one of my earlier Plaxo posts: What do you do if you don’t want one of your contacts to store all your contact details at a place like Plaxo? Well the short answer is you contact the person who is storing your details there, and ask them not to.  Alternatively, Plaxo says, we would be happy to make this request directly to a specific user on your behalf. (Here’s the relevant page on Plaxo’s website.) Plaxo says it cannot delete anything itself, because, among other things, this information remains private to the user. “In no event will we delete information from our users’ address books, regardless of whether that information is stored on a user’s home computer or contained in their Plaxo address book stored on our servers.”

 

This is fine — or more or less fine — if the data is secure. But that clearly wasn’t the case until Monday night. As Plaxo says: ”This information is protected with best practice security systems and is not accessible by anyone other than the owner of the information and anyone to whom that owner gives access.” So what does someone concerned about the security of their personal data do to stay out of Plaxo?

 

What some folk have done, and we’ve mentioned this before, is to either fill in a Plaxo auto-reply, which means you won’t get any future update request emails from Plaxo every time someone with you in their address book starts using Plaxo. Others will actually create a profile for themselves with only their name and their email address in (I’ve noticed a few Microsoft employees do this). This means they won’t be bugged to fill in all their other details.

 

But, and it’s an important but, it won’t prevent their personal data from being stored: If I store all Oliver’s personal details in Plaxo (and if I use Plaxo, I don’t have any choice about this, whether or not I decide to email Oliver and ask him to update his data) that information will be stored in Oliver’s contact details on Plaxo’s servers in addition to whatever data he adds. If he only gives me his email address, there’s still all his other contact details I’ve stored there, potentially up for grabs by a phisher. Remember, Plaxo automatically stores your whole Outlook address book on its servers, whether or not you decide to ping someone to update their details.

 

And there are other problems. There’s no way for a non-user to tell whether your data is being stored at Plaxo unless you email all your contacts — anyone, basically, who may have your email address in their Outlook address book, and ask them. As that is tantamount to spamming, you probably are going to think hard before doing that. And just because one person removes your data, doesn’t mean you’re clean. There are still all the other folk storing your data there, since none of these contacts is linked to another. As Plaxo itself points out, “Plaxo service does NOT create a public accessible directory — each user’s address book is unique, each user may have entered different information about individuals in their address book. We do not share information from one user’s address book with other users, and we do not attempt to cross-check the accuracy of the data in our users’ address books (e.g., there might be thousands of entries for “John Smith”, but no way to determine whether these entries refer to the same person, etc.).” Bottom line: Unless you’re actually a Plaxo member, Plaxo may have duplicated your contact details a dozen times over.

 

I’m going to invite Plaxo to comment on this post, and will post their thoughts. But in this age of phishing data security has got to be top of the list of Plaxo’s concerns. It’d be good to hear that from them.