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Small Biz Mac, Small Biz Mac focuses on using Mac as the foundation of a small business--the operating platform, the market, and more. This blog will discuss both the challenges of operating a business on Mac hardware and software, and the impact of the broader Mac market on business.

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Kevin Walzer and Lori Jareo, publishers, software developers, Mac/iPhone users, and small business owners.



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Sun, 15 Jan 2017

Let's Encrypt

We've recently updated all twelve or so of the websites we maintain to be fully secure, supporting the encrypted HTTPS protocol. What this means is that data sent from our websites to a browser or other client will be encrypted, and thus impossible to hack into. While encryption is typical of sites that handle financial transactions such as PayPal, it's also becoming increasingly common with non-financial sites as well just because of the increasing risks from hackers and surveillance in this age of Edward Snowden.

What's made our move in this direction is Let's Encrypt, which aims to serve as a "free, automated, and open Certificate Authority." Sponsored by the not-for-profit Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), Let's Encrypt provides a free and (relatively) simple mechanism to provide website security. ISRG is funded by both industry and individual donations.

It took us a weekend to figure out how to generate the certificates, install them, and configure our Mac OS X server to direct all web traffic to the secure HTTP port. It's a fairly small investment of time to significantly increase the security of our websites, and, by extension, the web itself.

The emergence of Let's Encrypt both reflects the trend toward increasing security on the web, and also is helping to make it happen. It's doubtful that a community, non-profit effort would have succeeded had there not already been a critical mass of concern about web security. But Let's Encrypt's relative ease-of-use, at least for those with basic skills in managing websites and server configuration, are helping to accelerate the trend toward security.

Its price--free--also helps. Encryption/SSL certificates for all the websites we operate could have been procured from a commercial source, but only at the cost of hundreds of dollars a year. For a small business, that's something that has to be weighed carefully. We pay hundreds of dollars for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription because those tools literally make our business possible. The benefits of encryption are harder to quantify economically, at least in terms of increased profitability. But if the only investment is time, then it's an easier to call.

Thanks so much to the people who make Let's Encrypt possible.

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Wed, 13 May 2015

Micro Center: DIY Geek-out in Every Aisle

By: Lori Jareo

Some years ago, my husband and I moved to a street that had both a Staples and a Radio Shack. We considered ourselves pretty lucky that we had access to both good office tech and people who had the odds & ends to make that tech more manageable. Over the past several years, the stores changed to emphasize products like furniture and cellphones that we weren't much interested in. We went in less and less. We started ordering online from Staples and then our Radio Shack simply closed.

One Saturday, a free evening presented itself in the form of a trip to Micro Center some 25 miles away, 50 miles round-trip. Why not? Back in the day--a cold spring day in 1995--we made the trip to get a state-of-the-art 28.8 kilobit modem for our Mac Classic. Twenty years later, we still had that lovin' feeling when we walked back through those sliding glass doors.

For a noisy, bare-bones, crowded store, Micro Center is what Radio Shack should have grown into, and what Staples should be seeking to emulate. Need four types of button batteries? Check. Need USB phone chargers? Got 'em. Need to solder something? OK. Paper for your new Staples printer? All set. Sound system? TV? Gaming? Yes, yes, yes. The varieties in the Apple department are wonderful. Oh yeah . . . our long-closed camera store has resurfaced here too.

If there's something that isn't there, could it be made on one of the 3-D printing machines offered for sale? Oh, the possibilities.

Twenty years ago, this store was the portal to the world because it had the fastest modem available for our little Mac Classic. After bringing it home, we were up all night posting at bulletin boards all over the world just for Mac users. We bragged at our offices that we could play BBS games alongside people from Europe and Australia because our modem was so fast. Yep, we were scorchin' the phone lines.

That 28.8 modem wasn't much bigger than a candy bar. Micro Center was the candy store we remembered it to be, just like Radio Shack was for anyone who wanted to hear what Japan or Brazil sounded like on a short-wave. A trans-continental connection was just a flip of a switch away.

Now that we're in the year 2015, we have a half-dozen MacBookPros in our home, and more computing power than a hundred Mac Classics and 28.8's in our iPhones. We have a waterproof digital camera that is less expensive than the gas we'll need to get to the beach where we'll use it.

Micro Center will soon be closing for the night but it's just as crowded as it was two hours ago when we got here. Staples was never this jammed. It's dark outside and snowing again but no one seems to care. People start moving to the check-out lanes at the front. Some people have specialty hdmi cables, laptops, routers, Adobe design software subscription cards; in short, new connectivity. It's almost 9 o'clock now and we bet that most folks will put their new stuff away when they get home. But for others, there are hard-to-find parts to install and t-shirts and posters to design. These folks just won't wait until morning.

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Sat, 09 May 2015

The truth about Mac in the enterprise

Here's a good article from an IT specialist about the value that Macs can bring even to a Windows-centric business environment. Mac users generally require less support, the platform is easier to administer than Windows, and it can provide a healthy diversity in terms of security and resistance to malware. This article is quite useful in understanding the business value that Macs can offer.

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Wed, 21 Aug 2013

Apple in the enterprise

Here's an excellent article that discusses Apple's complex relationship with corporate environments. The article makes several salient points: one, while Apple products will never be as widely used in large business environments as hardware from IBM, HP and similar firms, Apple has gained an increasing presence in corporate circles through employee demand and especially with the emergence of the iPhone and iPad, providing an increasing range of tools to manage these devices; and second, Apple's server products have evolved away from targeting large corporate environments to small business settings, with an emphasis on simplicty and ease-of-use over power and scalability.

Speaking as long-time Apple server users from the days when Apple was making a serious play for the large corporate market with its offerings, we can confirm that the more recent shift toward small businesses does sacrifice some power for simplicity, but the server OS remains viable. It is also surprising to see how extensive Apple's offerings for the corporate sector are with regards to device management (as distinguished from a server platform). The roaring success of the iPhone has not just come in the consumer sector, but also the corporate sector, and Apple has quietly emerged as a major player here. For those of us who have used Macs in a business context for years, that's gratifying to see.

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Wed, 24 Jul 2013

Customer communications

Like many companies, my business makes use of mass e-mails to communicate with customers, and our Mac OS X Server setup plays a useful role in this communication. We use two types of tools for customer communications: a monthly newsletter and one-off messages. The tool we use depends on the type of message we are sending.

For our monthly newsletter, which customers can sign up for at our website, we use phpList, a popular open-source mailing list program. phpList is a good fit for us, because it is web-based and can be installed and configured on our server without much difficulty. OS X Server supports web serving, databases, e-mail, and the PHP programming language out of the box. phpList allows you to send nicely-styled HTML e-mails to customers, and provides complete management of the contact database, allowing customers to sign up and unsubscribe with no trouble. phpList provides considerable cost savings over commerical customer mailing lists services like Constant Contact, allowing us to communciate with our customers without incurring additional expense.

For the books we publish, we typically send an announcement about the book to an e-mail list of the author's friends and family, provided by the author. Using phpList for this type of communication isn't really appropriate because the messages are sent only once, and the e-mail addresses are not retained in any database or used for subsequent communications. For this purpose, we have started using a more lightweight tool called mailmerge. Rather than being web-based, mailmerge is a single Perl script that is run from the command line. It is very simple, requiring only minor configuration in the script itself, a list of e-mail addressed saved in a file called "data," and the text of the message savied in another file called "template." It doesn't allow HTML e-mail, just regular text, but for simple announcements it is more than enough and is, in my view, more professional than sending out a large batch of e-mails using the "BCC" function of an e-mail program. The script is very convenient because, again, OS X Server comes with Perl installed, and so it's simple to run.

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Wed, 20 Mar 2013

New site feature: Screencasts

We've joined the ranks of developers running promotional screencasts of their apps on their website. The first screencast, for PacketStream, is below.

Screencasts can range in quality from the strictly bare-bones--someone recording a session of an app running on their machine while narrating over an echo into the computer's built-in mike--to highly sophisticated videos with lots of animation, special effects, slick background tracks, and more. It was the latter type, produced by MacUpdate in support of a promotion for FileMorph, which inspired us to give screencasting a try.

The result of our efforts is somewhere between rank amateur and highly slick commercial production--we wanted something with a little polish but don't have the budget for uber-slick--and we're reasonably pleased with it. Our toolset, similar to what we use with our own software, was mainly open-source software (Audacity for mixing the soundtrack, Avidemux for editing the video, and ffmpeg for post-processing for upload to YouTube). We tried a couple of commercial Mac tools on a demo basis; while these tools seemed quite powerful, their learning curve was a bit steep, as was their cost. The open-source toolchain fit both our budget, and our brain, better.

We plan to do screencasts for all our apps over the coming year, and now that we have an idea of how the process works, we think it will be a bit simpler to proceed. We're looking forward to it.

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Mon, 18 Feb 2013

Mail issues: still no rhyme or reason

The near daily issues we were seeing with our Mac-based e-mail server seem to have declined in frequency, down to once every couple of weeks or so, but it's still hard to discern what the issue is. There's no rhyme or reason to the crashes; sometimes it's the SMTP server (Postfix) that receives outside mail, sometimes it's the local mail server (Dovecot) that holds it for delivery to local e-mail clients. We've taken various measures to increase the stability of the server system, and that seems to be the best we can do.

Ultimately it's likely that we're going to stay with OS X Server because it's the least bad, or expensive, alternative; commercial alternatives such as Kerio Connect or Communigate Pro are light-years ahead of OS X's open-source components in terms of cost (anywhere from $800 to $1200, paid annually), and we have not been able to verify whether they are superior in terms of stability and performance, especially for a small company like us (two employees). Plus, with a decade of investment in the OS X Server platform, changing our structure at this point--a setup we have some expertise with--seems like a risky proposition. So, we're staying with OS X Server.

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Tue, 22 Jan 2013

New release of OS X Server, January 2013

Ars Technica has a good review of the latest release of OS X Server for Mountain Lion. If you've updated your server to ML (we haven't), check this out.

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Thu, 17 Jan 2013

Epic tax battles of history

A man uses the machines you build
to sit down and pay his taxes. A man uses the machines I build
to listen to the Beatles while he relaxes.
--Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, "Epic Rap Battles of History"

I'm finding this statement to be true: I own a heavy black Windows 7 laptop for one purpose, running the tax software I use to pay my taxes.

The leading tax software vendors, H&R Block, make Mac versions of several flavors of their tax software--but the most complex software, for multi-employee companies, only comes in Windows.

Why?

I am not unhappy with the tax software I've chosen, H&R Block's home/corporate tax edition for LLC's, partnerships, etc. It is complete, does its job well, and is reasonably priced at $75 (far less expensive than the comparable mix of TurboTax packages). But their Mac software stops at the level of sole proprietors/independent contractors. Both TurboTax and Intuit seem assume that the only Mac users of their business-oriented tax packages are indie/solo creative types. More complex businesses, with partners or corporate structures, must just use Windows.

Sorry, guys, that's not true. I'm very grumpy that I had to buy a Windows laptop, even a cheap one, to run your software. Running Windows in a virtualized fashion on my Mac via VMWare or Parallels wouldn't be any cheaper, or more convenient. In case you aren't aware, Apple is now considerably larger than Microsoft, and the Mac platform is actually growing.

The first tax software vendor to figure this out is going to make a lot of money, from me and a lot of other small business owners.

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Thu, 20 Dec 2012

Do you need OS X Server?

CNet has a good overview here about whether OS X Server makes sense for a small business, particularly a Mac-based business. Their conclusion: "if you would like to centralize the management of any of these services for multiple computers and provide more dynamic means of accessing these services, then it's likely you need a server. You don't necessarily need to use Apple's Server package: since OS X is Unix-based, it can be configured with other server software, much of which is free and open-source, but this usually requires advanced server and Unix knowledge."

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Sun, 09 Dec 2012

Welcome to Small Biz Mac

Small Biz Mac focuses on using Mac as the foundation of a small business--the operating platform, the market, and more. This blog will discuss both the challenges of operating a business on Mac hardware and software, and the impact of the broader Mac market on business.

About us: We're a two-person business based in Cincinnati, Ohio, focusing primarily on publishing for the literary and academic markets and software development for the Mac and iPhone markets.

Some years ago we hosted a previous version of Small Biz Mac; we discontinued the blog in order to focus on other projects, particularly our software development business. With all the changes in the Mac market, the world of small business, and more, we felt it was a good time to revive the blog. We hope you'll take a look and find some things of interest here.

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