Category Archives: Life in the Cloud

The Truth About Online Gifting and Greeting Over the Holidays

Christmas Gift CardsFrom digital gift cards to electronic greeting cards to online invitations, how far can you go when it comes to a digitizing your holidays? Based on research conducted this year, the answer is “far.”

Digital cards and e-cards–once viewed as impersonal, lazy and thoughtless–are now being touted as convenient, customizable and efficient–not to mention eco-friendly and affordable.

Indeed, JibJab Media CEO Gregg Spiridellis sees e-cards as more than just an alternative to paper. “In today’s culture, e-cards are not only accepted but often preferred,” he said. “Much as most people use paperless billing, cards and invites have made a similar shift to reflect the lifestyle of the 21st century.”

JibJab is known for its popular animated electronic cards that feature users’ uploaded photos.

“[They] allow for a much higher entertainment value, complete with singing, dancing, and really fun humor,” he said.

That interactivity is something you just can’t find on paper.

James Hirschfeld, founder of Paperless Post, agrees that the acceptance and use of online cards and invitations is only trending upward.

“Even in a market where retail-based holiday card sales are declining, we’re seeing a 65% increase in online holiday card sending this year,” he said. “Online cards reach recipients where they spend most of their time: the Internet.”

When it comes to digital gift cards, the numbers are also climbing: It’s estimated that $29.8 billion will be sent on the cards this year. According to the National Retail Federation, 81% of holiday shoppers will buy gift cards this season. They’ll spend an average of $163, which is the highest amount recorded in the survey’s history.

Of this year’s holiday online shoppers, an online InComm survey found that 77% will buy digital gift cards as opposed to the plastic counterparts. Forty percent of those surveyed said they’d prefer an emailed gift card as opposed to a paper printout.

Sites like Gift Card Mall, Gift Rocket, and PayPal’s new Digital Gifts make electronic gift card purchases easier than ever. Many digital gift card retailers give purchasers convenient options, including flexible dollar increments plus the ability to immediately print a certificate and present it in person, or schedule it in an email for later–complete with an online redemption code.

If these trends continue, “Cyber Monday” may become “Cyber holiday season.”

“We live in a digital age,” Spiridellis said. “It’s clear that the cultural acceptance is there for electronic cards to be perceived as containing the same thoughtfulness and care as a paper card–just adapted for today’s generation.”

 

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Battle of the Streaming Bands

If anything could qualify as the end of the debate between whether the future of digital music lies in downloads or streaming, it could be the launch of iTunes Radio. The fact that Apple–the pay-per-download giant–is placing bets on music streaming is very telling, but the September release of iTunes Radio has also opened for debate another question: Which provider will offer the best service?

“An arms race is afoot,” RCA Records President and CEO Tom Corson told Rolling Stone.

And, thus, the battle is on among music streaming companies, from the long-running Pandora to the rumored YouTube streaming service. Though the war is sure to be a lengthy one, some industry experts are weighing in on who is faring best so far and why.

Pandora

Right off the bat, Pandora’s early entrance into the music streaming game gives it 70 million advantages over the new services. With all of those active users, Pandora also has the support of long-time advertisers. Indeed, CNBC reports that Pandora runs advertisements for eight to 10 minutes per hour.

Spotify

Spotify allows users to get more hands on with their playlists than Pandora, with hand-curated collections of songs. The Huffington Post calls Spotify “more robust” than other streaming music services. In addition, it’s integration with Facebook is a unique feature that makes the music listening experience more social, even for lonely office workers.

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iTunes Radio

Though comparatively late to the music streaming scene, iTunes Radio already has two big advantages over the longstanding Pandora:, according to CNET: human-curated stations and global music rights. There is also potential, states CNET, in the combination of iTunes Radio, Siri and automobiles. “iTunes Radio is a clear threat,” said BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield in the CNET article. “[Siri is] key to giving iOS an important place in the car and beyond, and making iTunes Radio a true ‘Pandora Killer.’”

YouTube Music

A YouTube music streaming service is still officially a rumor, but there is lots of buzz about it nonetheless. Forbes predicts that such a move would essentially be a rebrand–although a smart rebrand–of Google’s existing service, Google Play Music All Access.

“YouTube … is a brand that everyone knows, and most kids already use it to discover their music,” wrote Bobby Owsinski in the Forbes post. “Adding a streaming music function becomes only just a new YouTube feature, not a new service.”‘

So, music streaming services, get ready to rumble! What all this ramping up means to the consumer is that the future of music has been decided. Notably, the expansion of iTunes’ scope from digital downloads only to streaming seems to be an indication that the industry in changing gears. Almost certainly, the features of each service will evolve as both the technology and competition heats up, and the broad reach of better established brands like iTunes and YouTube will give the original names in streaming–such as Pandora and Spotify–a run for their money.

One thing is for sure: Music lovers who want more songs at their fingertips–at all times–will be sharing the victory with whichever service rises to the top.

 

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Can You Spot Phishing Emails?

Security researchers at Fortinet recently quizzed their readers about how savvy they were when it comes to identifying phishing emails. Predictably, and depressingly, Fortinet found a large percentage couldn’t tell the tricks from the treats. (The survey was done just before Halloween.)

Phishers are getting more clever over time, and it is harder than ever to separate legitimate email from messages intended to steal your passwords, your money and your pride.

With all of the information on phishing that is available, and the warnings over the years about what to do and not to do, it’s amazing that this is still a problem. But, let’s face it: End users are not security professionals, and many of us go through our email in-boxes without much of a critical eye.

Phishing Email

In addition, phishing schemes are getting more and more sophisticated. It used to be that phishing messages were riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, or just looked wrong. Today, it’s not always easy to pick up on a message with malicious intent. Modern phishers craft their messages carefully, using realistic banner images from the target institution or language that is copied directly from real emails and Web pages.

The growing challenge in discerning email fact from fiction was reflected in the results of the Fortinet quiz, which asked readers to self-select into one of three groups:

  • -Absolute beginner
  • -Your average netizen
  • -Veteran security professional

“As expected, the veterans scored just a little bit better than everyone else, falsely identifying a phishing email just 16% of the time,” the blog reporting the results states. “Conversely, the newbies received bad marks nearly 32% of the time. The middle group marked wrong answers at an average of 21%.”

That is a lot of wrong answers (although, interestingly, one newbie scored perfectly).

Take the quiz for yourself and see how well you can spot the phony emails. But, more importantly, use this exercise as a way to talk to your users and sensitize them to the issues surrounding phishing and its dangers. Security training should be an ongoing affair, providing end users with information about new threats.

“Email is the tried-and-true medium for spammer, and to know that they are still succeeding 20% of the time is a clear call to action for all those security and IT professionals out there.” states the blog. “[Twenty percent] of your organization is at serious risk of clicking on a phishing email today. What are you going to do about it?”

 

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How Cannonball is Changing Email on the iPad

Cannonball Email AppFor people who work well with simplistic lists, the traditional mobile email interface is fine. It works. But for those who like a more interactive, visual and smart inbox experience–and for those who can never make it through that long list of emails–Cannonball, a new email app for iPad, delivers.

In addition to providing messages in traditional list form, Cannonball groups messages by sender in two columns of thumbnails. “The effect is that it becomes much more fun to browse your inbox,” wrote Mashable about the new app, adding that it also increases email efficiency. “Suddenly, messages from services like Groupon and LinkedIn get lumped together and can be deleted in bulk. Likewise, you can choose to group messages from a particular friend or coworker together so you can easily scroll back and sort through your recent correspondences.”

The concept may sound familiar–it’s not unlike the new “promotions” and “priority” inboxes (among others) recently rolled out by Gmail. That similarity is cited as a drawback by TechCrunch, though it’s worth noting that all emails in the Cannonball model, regardless of the inbox they are in, appear in the iPad email interface. So while Cannonball may be replicating an existing Gmail feature, it’s bringing it to a new class of devices.

But the real advantage of Cannonball, Mashable states, is not its inbox triage capabilities, but rather its goals for email management: Unlike other mobile email apps, it doesn’t aim for a completely empty inbox.

“Cannonball is operating with a slightly different premise,” notes Mashable. “Most users don’t want to have zero emails in their inbox; what they want is to have zero unread emails in their inbox.”

And that’s what makes the product so unique. Cannonball’s touchable, drag-and-drop-able, colorful interface is pleasant to look at and easy to use, and the email triage capabilities it offers are helpful for anyone overrun with too many emails (read: everyone with email). However, because some emails contain important information or must be mulled before making a response, the goal of inbox management–rather than annihilation—makes Cannonball worth a try.

 

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How Digital Is Affecting Your Local Coffee Shop

With digital currency on the rise–hello, Bitcoin!– it’s not crazy to think that one day loose change and wallets will go the way of CDs, film and landlines. But how do these digital currency trends translate to everyday life? Following, we take a look at a few that might someday be used (if they aren’t already) at your local coffee shop.

Coffee Shop

Coffee shop frequenters who pay with plastic don’t often throw a bit extra toward their favorite barista. They have no cash on hand. In fact, only 27% of point-of-sale purchases were made with cash in 2011, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research, and that number is dropping every year. That’s why the tip jar is getting a makeover with the advent of DipJar.

DipJar lets customers tip with the convenience of plastic. A fixed amount–usually $1–is listed on the front of the DipJar. With each “dip” of a credit card, a tip is sent to the retailer.

It doesn’t get much easier than that–unless you didn’t even have to pull out your wallet: If some companies have their way, the future of the wallet will be no wallet at all. Your smartphone will be your wallet. LevelUp is an app that lets consumers pay with their smartphones after they have securely linked their debit or credit cards to an account. Filter, a coffee shop in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, is one of the 5,000-plus locations that currently accept LevelUp.

Filter doesn’t accept plastic because of the high fees associated with it. Customers who want to purchase a coffee can choose to pay with cash or they can open the LevelUp app and place the generated barcode in front of the LevelUp scanner on the counter. Phones vibrate when payment has been accepted. There’s even an option to add a tip before scanning.

The PayPal app works in a similar way. It’s now accepted at retailers large and small, from Dunkin Donuts shops to Home Depot to the local Chinese restaurant down the street.

When it comes to digital currency, what is your threshold? Are you on board with paying with your smartphone? Or tipping with plastic? Or would you rather pay cash? It’s a whole new world of currency.

 

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The Perils of Locking and Losing Devices

Locked Smart PhoneIf you’re the proud owner of a new iPhone 5S, you’ve likely said goodbye to the traditional four-digit passcode and hello to Touch ID. Apple’s upgraded security feature lets users unlock their phones quickly and easily with their unique fingerprint.

But what about those techies who have yet to splurge on the latest iPhone? And what about the people who have iPhones but don’t use the passcode option? Apple claims that more than 50% of users don’t lock their phones with a passcode. After all, it can be a pain to punch in four digits every time you check your phone–which is an average of 150 times per day, according to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ annual Internet Trends report.

Although a misplaced or stolen iPhone can be relocated with the free Find My iPhone app, that doesn’t prevent the device–or the data it stores–from being compromised. The best way to protect your device and the data on it is to not lose it in the first place. Luckily, a technology trend called “wireless leashes”–a concept similar to the invisible fences that keep your dog in the yard–can help prevent loss and, in turn, theft.

ZOMM is a poker-chip-sized device that wirelessly tethers to your Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone. ZOMM alerts you if you and your phone should ever separate by more than 30 feet. Clip ZOMM to your keychain or throw it in your purse. An alarm will sound the next time you’ve left your phone behind at the restaurant, in the taxi or at a friend’s house.

ZOMM is just one of the recent developments in cell phone safety, like the Bluetooth-enabled Tile system, that we’ve recently blogged about. But ZOMM takes safety to another level–and even doubles as a Bluetooth speaker. Say your phone rings while you’re driving but it’s buried at the bottom of your purse. Just click the ZOMM device that’s now hanging from your keychain and start chatting away.)

You’ve got to love a device that pulls double duty.

ZOMM is available for $40 on Amazon.com.

 

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How Two Websites Turn Smiles Into Pageviews

Websites Turning Pageviews into SmilesYou own a business, website and/or blog, yet the adage “build it and they will come” does not always seem to apply. Indeed, driving uniques, repeat visits and page views is extremely challenging. Successful sites demonstrate that you can make it work by making people smile.

Feel-good viral sites Buzzfeed and Upworthy make it look easy. They have successfully figured out and applied the secret for creating and curating share-worthy content. In August, BuzzFeed reportedly received 85 million visitors to its website. Upworthy, with its 22 million monthly uniques, can’t go toe-to-toe with Buzzfeed, but the traffic it generates would make most site owners drool.

What are they doing right?

Both Buzzfeed and Upworthy are using a combination of heavy visuals, must-click headlines, need-to-read listicles, and stories that are touching or simply make people smile.

Why does it work?

There are a number of reasons why this content mix works. In short, images increase engagement, the right headline can make your content go viral, and lists are an easy sell for readers because they make “a very specific promise of what’s in store,” according to Copyblogger Founder Brian Clark.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, smiles turn into page views organically.

Need proof? Read three Buzzfeed stories and watch three videos on Upworthy. In all likelihood, you will smile several times while consuming this content. You will likely also feel compelled to act on the content–sharing it so that others can feel the joy, too.

After all, a smile is contagious, and, in our digital society, one endorphin high can be the catalyst to making 20 or–if you’re George Takei–20,000 people’s day.

What can businesses learn from this?

Your content should strive to make your customers happy–even if you’re not in the media and publishing business.

The easiest way to start is by talking like a real person–the era of artifically stiff business-speak is over. If your content makes your business easier to relate to, users are more likely to remember it. They are also more likely to share news about and content from your business with the people they know–potential new customers.

The authenticity may even make ‘em smile.

 

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Textbook Assault Looks Change How Students Buy Books

While the digital age has changed much about education, the same cannot be said about how college students buy their textbooks. Twice every school year, broke students flock to their local bookstore and inevitably overpay for required reading materials.

Greg Brooks, the founder of Textbook Assault, thinks there should be a more student-friendly alternative.

“There is an oligopoly with the textbook industry,” said Brooks. “Over the last 30 years, five major publishers have essentially bought up all the smaller companies and now control the price of books. They set the prices of textbooks sky high: the price has risen almost 750% since 1978 (compared to less than a 250% increase in inflation).”

For whatever reason, the internet hasn’t done much to corner the untapped market either. While Amazon.com is a popular outlet, it doesn’t always boast the lowest prices. And if students want to bargain hunt, they might have to search upwards of 20 textbook websites—individually—before stumbling upon that one adequately priced copy of Introduction to Organic Chemistry.

Brooks believes there’s an opportunity to change how students shop for textbooks. Textbook Assault’s approach is to become the “Kayak.com of textbooks. “Like Kayak.com does for flights, Textbook Assault instantly searches the internet for the cheapest textbooks options. The key difference, however, is that users can checkout directly from Textbook Assault—even though the company doesn’t actually possess any inventory.

Brooks also feels a sense of responsibility for the Cup Noodles-consuming generation.

“If one of our textbook partners cancels the order, we refill it for the student—often at a loss,” said Brooks. “And even if something gets lost in the mail or a student wants to return a book, we take care of that as well.”

Textbook Assault claims that the average site user saves over $3,000 as compared to either the traditional college store or inefficient internet options. Because Brooks’ site is essentially the first of its kind, the founder is equally excited about how the textbook industry could evolve.

“The textbook industry is ripe for innovation and it will come sooner than later,” said Brooks. “We know what the status quo is and it was easy enough to provide the best solution for the status quo so we quickly did that. But, the innovation is what students need and that is what we will provide in the future. What that actually is, only time will tell.”

 

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Forget waiting in actual lines. WaitAway will text you when your table is ready

WaitAway AppLike owners of other businesses, the biggest fear for restaurateurs is often the lack of customers. But being successful in getting people through the door can be a double-edged sword in the dining business. Having a line that extends from outside the front door to along the sidewalk and around the corner can be bad in the long run if diners realize the food was merely good, and not worth the two-hour wait a second time around.

But now there is a solution that won’t trap diners in crowded waiting areas, or confine them within 5 meters of the premises (how far do those blasted restaurant pagers allow you to wander anyways?), so you can go off and explore the neighborhood until your table is ready.

After requesting a table and giving your phone number to the host, WaitAway will text you immediately with an estimated wait time and once again when your table is ready.

My first encounter with the app was as a diner at the Meatball Shop in Greenwich Village, NYC. I arrived more than an hour early for the proposed dinner time because I was in the neighborhood earlier, running an errand.

“Danny, party of 4,” I told the hostess after asking how long the wait would be.

“75 minutes” is what I vaguely remember due to my awe and shock, realizing, What a coincidence! The rest of my party will arrive in about 60 minutes!

Almost immediately, I received a text confirming my reservation with a link that would allow me to check my wait status.

Drats! I’m one of the few iPhone users without a data plan. Let’s just hope the estimated wait time is accurate.

To my frustration, my guests arrived later than they quoted — but just in time. To my surprise, the table was ready almost at the exact time the hostess estimated (give or take a few minutes).

Oh, mystery software, how I love you.

At the time, I was unaware the program that pinged me with my wait information was the WaitAway app. But whatever it was, I was excited someone had come up with simple, user-friendly technology that let me avoid claustrophobic anxiety.

How do businesses benefit from this kind of software? Sarah Turcotte of FastCompany reports that after the Meatball Shop’s first month using WaitAway, walkaways decreased 30%.

This is absolutely a step up from range-restrictive pagers. Yet WaitAway is not alone in the space. BuzzTable and NoWait are two other businesses offering queue management software.

Mobile communications is exploding. Adopting mobile technology will be important for every business. Business with physical locations will soon have to figure out ways to leverage mobile tech to provide an exceptional customer experience. Otherwise they may be left biting the dust when competitors get ahead of the technological curve.

Programs such as WaitAway provide more convenience and transparency to increasingly demanding consumers, who offer their loyalty to businesses they love and trust.

What new tech are you using for your storefront location?

 

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Gibbon.co and the world of online learning

Gibbon.coThe problem with higher education isn’t just the high tuition fees or low job placement rates. Much of higher education is also marked by inflexibility; stubborn curricula limit the learning experience and prevent students from working at their own pace and from anywhere.

Luckily, there’s another way you can get a world-class education without having to step foot in a classroom ever again.

A new way to learn

Gibbon.co promises its social learning platform will be “the easiest way to get ridiculously smart.”

The site, currently in private beta, will allow users to “Create, share and follow Learning Flows, containing articles, books and videos.” Learning Flows are carefully curated resources that organize information already available on the web to provide a “clear path of what to learn.”

Ever do a Google search to try to learn something? In 0.47 seconds, Google identifies 57,600,000 results for the search term “Ajax programming.” Less than half a second is all it takes to source anything and everything there is to know about “Ajax programming.”

But where to start? And what type of human can afford the energy or time to read through the more than 57 million results? Without proper guidance, you’re better off paying an Ajax professional to fulfill all of your programming needs.

Learning Flows on Gibbon will “guide [users] to the best content available on the web to learn a specific topic.” This won’t be a dull classroom lecture. Discussions are encouraged and peers may offer help to each other.

Since Learning Flows will be user-generated, problems, propaganda and errors are sure to arise. Yet, there are more than enough honest experts and knowledgeable individuals out there who will create Learning Flows that make it really simple to gain the knowledge you want.

Welcome to the world of online learning

E-learning is booming. On the supply side, online learning upstarts such as Skillshare, Udemy, and Coursera are offering an incredibly wide range of courses for free, or for a small fee. Many higher education institutions are bringing courses online too. On the demand side, Coursera alone boasts more than 4.3 million “Courserians” on their homepage.

It is clear there is no shortage of expertise on the web and that many millions are eager-to-learn outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Entrepreneurs should be among the eager-to-learn, since building a business and managing it through different stages of growth requires a constantly evolving and improving skill set. If you run your own business, you — and your staff — should invest in education of some sort for personal and professional growth.

Fortunately, you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars — if you spend any money at all — for you and your team to learn the skills necessary to take your business to the next level.

Go on, start learning!

 

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