Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Welcome to the family

We have recently signed on Tuttle Publishing and Barbour Books. I will post more information on these great companies, but let me publicly say welcome to the Quality Solutions family!

Monday, February 25, 2008

I'm In Love

It has been noted in the past that I am somewhat of a geek when it comes to technology. Up until now, there was a lone champion for my technological affections - my Raymarine E series multi-function radar/chart plotter. This unit is the combination of several key pieces of navigation equipment - GPS, Chartplotter, Radar, electronic gyro compass, weather station, engine room video, DSC emergency beacon, and the list goes on. All of this is fine and good, but what really blows me away is the easy to use interface, and most importantly the ability to layer this information. I can be looking at the chartplotter - basically similar to a paper chart, and overlay aerial photographs, radar image, Doppler weather radar from a shore based system, or show a video image of the engine room (to confirm that we are indeed still afloat). The radar has a function to track targets on the scope and determine relative bearing, relative speed and collision avoidance. Think Top Gun with the radar image of all those fighters being tracked, only it is on my family cruising boat. Pretty darn handy when cruising through Block Island Sound in a dense July fog (Honey, can you see the bow of the boat?) Very, VERY cool technology. Raymarine E Series website. In fact, I love this technology so much I bought 2 of them - you have to have redundancy, right?

But now, I must confess to a new love. Not one that replaces my Raymarine, but joins it at the top of the list - my wonderful new iPhone. This little compact wonder has more functions than can be listed, but the primary functions for me are cell phone, Safari web browser, Imap email... and the ability to read PDF files (Ebooks!!). The fact that it is also a full blown iPod for audio, video and the like are an added bonus.

What really shocks me is the user interface. Having used several mobile phones such as the Motorola Razr, several Nokias before that, along with Windows pc's, tablet PC's, and Mac desktops, I can't believe how beautiful and functional the iPhone is. I am sure everyone has seen the commercials, but it is hard to appreciate it until it is in your hand and anticipating what you are trying to do. The scrolling of pages - contacts, emails, web pages- is very dynamic and tactile. The screen is crisp and easy to read, and pinching to zoom in or out is so natural on the screen that you don't have to think about it. I never believed that a 3 1/2 inch screen would be all that functional to browse websites but I was wrong - it's wonderful. And I don't mean it can browse mobile phone websites, but the usual websites I am used to on my pc (sans Flash player). The iMap email allows me to clear my inbox, so it is not full when I return home. I have tied this into Google Apps, which I will blog about another day. And get this - the AT&T data subsription costs $20 per month for unlimited data/internet.

The PDF reader built into Safari on the iPhone works beautifully, so my next to do will be dig into some ebooks. There are already some iPhone hacks out there to read text/html ebooks, so it will be interesting to see how this accelerates, especially as iTunes comes online with true ebooks. Tim O'Reilly wrote a blog post on iPhone as an non-dedicated ebook reader: O'Reilly on iPhone as a reader.

There is some trepidation in the industry that Apple may not sell 10 MILLION of these in 2008 as hoped, but my SINGLE iPhone has found a welcome home.

But here is the dilemma: since my iPhone can access Maps, live weather radar, aerial photographs and weather forecasts through the Safari web browser- and I can call the Coast Guard for help, will my Raymarine may get jealous?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Transformations-Time to Get Uncomfortable

A couple of years ago, my wife Grace and I were at a party of some sort, without the girls, and spent much of the time just talking alone. We had been married about a dozen years and were contemplating what it meant to raise our kids in a completely safe, secure, lily white and possibly sterile suburban environment. Out of that conversation came the conviction that we were too comfortable and that our kids may become 2 dimensional. It was time to get uncomfortable - to challenge ourselves while enhancing our family values. This was the genesis of our 2006 sabbatical where we took the kids out of school, closed up our home, and cruised on our boat for the winter. The Bahamas was like a natural playground and a perfect canvas to paint a different life - even if just for the winter. Our discomfort for being out of our ordinary routines and environment will continue to pay dividends for the rest of our lives.

Quality Solutions is celebrating its 20th birthday and like any pivotal moment, it makes good sense to stop the hamster wheel for a moment and reflect on who we are, what we do and how we conduct ourselves. That is also the premise of this blog - climbing up the mast, getting away from the clutter and noise of the deck, and gaining new perspective.

20 years ago, when Fran Toolan founded Quality Solutions, the underlying principal was to deliver real, high value solutions as a consulting company and getting away from the in-vogue large consulting company, large budget, large team, low value projects that prevailed (and still survive). It was founded on the principal of innovation and fresh perspective. When our first application was written and delivered - the Purchase Order Management System for Simon & Schuster - I was fresh out of college at St. Mikes in Vermont. As it were, I had also worked for IBM in Burlington in the late 80's as an on-campus rep selling IBM PC's with windows Version 1. After a short stint at Andersen Consulting in Hartford programming main frame systems for insurance companies, I visited this startup company based in North Reading, MA that my sister Susan had joined. I was introduced to a small group of dedicated people excited about technology and innovative solutions. At the time, it was cutting edge to be writing windows based business applications against a relational SQL database. I had to be a part of Quality Solutions.

Our favorite anecdote from the early days was that we had to order a mouse separately - it didn't come with the computer. During the early days of training, we sometimes had to coach people to roll the mouse on the desk, not wave it in the air.

So where do we go from here? Fortunatley, we are a small company with a strong publisher community, highly stable application base and deeply experienced team. We have recognized that it is natural, but not desirable, for a well established company to become comfortable and not reach out, but we won't let that happen. We are dedicated to examining everything we do and to bring innovation back to the forefront. Nothing will remain unquestioned - except our absolute dedication to our clients,book publishing and our team.

Starting with some fundamentals - simply how we operate and communicate - I have the enviable position to be experimenting with new technology - from Google Apps to iPhone (wahoo!). I'll put up some posts on these things as I dig deeper, but the important thing is that this is just the beginning.

Last summer we launched - in earnest - our Sotware-As-A-Service hosted applications model and the response has been overwhelming. Signing onto a commercial datacenter and going to a monthly subscription pricing model has been very popular and we getting great traction. This shows that innovation into an existing stable based of solutions and clients can rapidly yield benefits for everyone.

On the development side, we have built a robust ecommerce solution for publishers and developed all new functionality in .Net for our Title Management Web app.

Our April User Conference is one of those things that has been a long time coming - and begs the question - why not earlier. Initially we were hoping to get 50 users, now we are scrambling to work out logisitics for 125-150.

The interesting parallel here is that publishers and book publishing in general is at the same crossroads as Quality Solutions - well established, but in need of a fresh perspective and innovative energy. I think all book publishers should be examining their current state of mind and decide if it is time for change.

I for one am excited to be a part of a 20 year old company with 'startup' energy.

I would love to hear from others about this philosophical topic and learn if you have found yourself at a similar crossroads.

The question to ask yourself is this: are you too comfortable?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

2000 Pages Later

There is a lot of healthy discussion in the blogosphere about the current trends in publishing and I enjoy reading and engaging in that discussion. But this post is about something at the heart of publishing: the simple fact that I love to read books.

I don't know when Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett was first published, but I do remember reading it in Hardcover - all 1000 pages of it. It seems to be one of the few benefits of gradual memory loss, but it was a great thrill to be able to pick this epic book off my Dad's book shelf to re-read it in January - and not really remember what happens next. I remembered the general tones of the book and some color of the central characters of the book, but that was it. It was like being re-introduced to a great friend from grade school 30 years later and slowly piecing the memory together of the adventures shared.

Of course, I felt that I ought to read Pillars of the Earth again before digging into the new and slightly heftier World Without End - a sequel which takes place a couple of centuries later, but heavily reliant upon the basis and characters from Pillars of the Earth.

Both books take place during the middle ages, 1100 and 1300, and are centered around kings, earls, bishops, priors, masons, sheriffs and outlaws. The first book is based around the multi-decade building of a cathedral, while the second book is based around the complex cultural system and the city of Kingsbridge that grew up around the cathedral.

There are several aspects of these books that I find utterly compelling. The characters that Ken Follett creates are powerfully rendered. In my opinion, the main characters in Pillars were more starkly cast - it was easy to tell that Prior Philip was a good guy while Sir William Hamleigh was just plain evil. Tom Builder was a hard working craftsman, his stepson Jack a genius. The threads of the characters were more consistently portrayed. In World Without End, however, it gets more slightly muddled. This book contains multiple branches of decendants from characters in the first book - with many shades of gray used to portray the main players. As in real life, the family tree spreads and the picture gets more confused. The story line is less defined in World, but remains as riviting as the first book.

The thing that srikes me most about these books is the unvarnished cruelty and injustice. Especially throughout World Without End I felt as if I kept taking punches directly out of the book for the 'good guys'. They get knocked down, stand back up and attempt to move forward. Civilization in the middle ages was really, well, medieval I guess. It makes me recognize that the 'injustices' we face in modern times pail in comparison to the fiction of the middle ages. Carpricous judgement abounds.

I must admit to feeling a bit of an epic 'literary hangover' from reading these books back to back. I don't tread lightly in books, but tend to go all in. However, with every hangover comes that slight internal glow knowing that, to be this hungover, it must have been one heck of a party.

Or so I am told.