Can't live without it

A list of favorites: Solutions that solve day-to-day problems and make all the difference

Unlike many InfoWorld readers, I can't afford to develop attachments to particular products, vendors, or technologies. I test and analyze emerging technology for a living. Yet like you, I have business requirements that I use technology to solve. As I always have, I maintain my own stable IT infrastructure independent of my employer. The choices I've made to address my needs may have no direct bearing on what you do. Your needs and the shape of your organization are, no doubt, very different from mine. Knowing that makes it easy for me to be objective. But even if your job isn't much like mine — and even if I don't agree with some of your choices and rationale — I know I'd learn from the choices you've made. Maybe you'll find something worthwhile in mine.

Bluetooth is one technology I was determined not to like but now can't live without. At the time of its introduction, I didn't see much need for Bluetooth. The promise was that it would be built into printers, modems, PDAs, and digital cameras. I use all of those devices, but I never saw cables as a hindrance significant enough to trade away the much higher speed of USB, Wi-Fi, or Ethernet. And then three events collided to bring me to Bluetooth: I started traveling more often, Apple sent me a D-Link Bluetooth dongle for my PowerBook, and Nokia sent me a prototype of its 3650 phone, which is now shipping in the United States. Now I routinely file stories, download e-mail with attachments, and check breaking news from airport gates, taxis, hotel lobbies, and conference rooms. I don't have to hunt all over the building for an open Wi-Fi channel or an analog modem line. Bluetooth is useful for more than just Internet connectivity. I use it to transfer appointments, contacts, images, audio clips, and Java programs between my notebook and my phone. When I'm without my PowerBook and someone at work has to send me a document right away, the 3650 downloads and stores the entire e-mail message on its memory card. I scroll through the message on the 3650's little screen and then beam the message to my PowerBook as soon as I return to the hotel. There is plenty of magic here from Apple, Nokia, T-Mobile, and D-Link, but Bluetooth makes it worth using together.

Web-based administration — actually, I'm a strong believer in Web-based everything, but let's stick to administration — is a feature I now require in every server application and network-attached device. My Xerox laser printer, FortiNet security appliance, D-Link Ethernet switch, and MDaemon mail server all have built-in Web servers. I understand the rationale behind rich administrative clients. I realize that HTML doesn't scale well to a rack filled with devices or lend itself to centralized monitoring. It can't be the sole means of administration. But there will always be times when administrators have to make quick one-on-one connections with needy devices, systems, and applications. For that purpose, a browser is a far better interface and is far easier to come by than a terminal emulator or a proprietary rich client.

ECMAScript, also known as JavaScript and JScript, attracts relatively little attention these days. Newer languages such as Python and C# seem more exotic, but I've found no other language as ideally suited to client/server applications. It is the most powerful and flexible programming language in Microsoft's .Net arsenal, it powers Macromedia's ColdFusion server and Flash client, and a subset of ECMAScript is built into all modern WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) mobile phones. It remains the only language that has a W3C-standardized binding to the HTML DOM (Document Object Model), which is what makes ECMAScript a required component of all serious Web browsers. I can design and code in several programming languages, and I feel strongly that programmers and software architects should avoid becoming attached to any one language. I purposely spend a lot of time in Java, C#, C++, and PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor), with absorbing side trips into Objective C and AppleScript. So it's with considerable surprise, given how many great languages and tools there are, that ECMAScript keeps rising to the top of my list for all kinds of jobs.

Windows XP and Linux are perfectly functional desktop and notebook environments. They get the job done, and whatever they don't do out of the box you can buy, download, or create. I have a strong affinity for both. Yet the Mac is the first client platform I've used that I haven't had to customize and extend to make it useful. I have Word and AppleWorks, but I use Apple's TextEdit for nearly all of my editing. I have Entourage (the Mac OS X equivalent of Outlook), but I prefer Apple's Mail application. I use iLife, iCal, and iSync daily. Lemke Software's GraphicConvertor and OmniGroup'sOmniGraffle (a diagramming tool) and OmniOutliner are extremely powerful commercial applications that ship with every Mac. I used to enjoy tinkering with and tuning my client environment. Now I just want it to work, right out of the box, and that's what Apple has so far done better than Microsoft and better than any Linux distribution.

There are two small devices that I carry with me everywhere: the Research In Motion BlackBerry 5810 and the Olympus DS-330 voice recorder. I praise the Nokia 3650 for having such exceptional connectivity and for making Bluetooth so compelling, but when it comes to mobile e-mail, the BlackBerry simply reigns supreme. It's not just the patented keyboard. The large text-optimized screen, the brilliant user interface, the built-in phone, and the powerful Java programmability trump every would-be competitor I've tested (I'm not finished testing yet). The Olympus DS-330 is the most recent addition to the slim case I carry everywhere. It's a relatively inexpensive digital voice recorder that captures dictated notes and conference presentations with amazing clarity. Olympus has more expensive models with expandable memory and music playback capabilities, but the DS-330 is the sweet spot for business users. The fact that Olympus includes both Mac and Windows software just makes it sweeter.

Last of all, there is the one server-side technology that has kept me in business: Windows Server. My lab's essential services all run on Windows and have since 1996. I have other very capable server operating systems in my lab, many of which are more fun or more interesting than Windows. OS X Server is practically a work of art; I'm looking forward to pairing that with Apple's new XServe. I load and test every new release of Red Hat and Mandrake Linux, along with FreeBSD, and the tinkerer in me loves all that configurability. I work with other commercial operating systems and platforms that I can't write about yet. Based on that research, I will certainly swap out a couple of my Windows 2000 Advanced Server nodes for OS X Server, Solaris 9, or something else. But I know that Windows 2003 Server will at least play a significant role in keeping my operations running. Depending on the outcome of the analysis of that OS that I'm doing now for InfoWorld, Windows Server might stay in charge of my lab. I'm not sentimental; I'd kick Windows Server out in a second if I found something better. That's true of all the technology I use now, and my job affords me the unique luxury of trying every alternative. What about you? I'd like to hear about the technologies and products that keep floating to the top of your list.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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