Skyfire browser for Windows Mobile and Symbian

Picture by Aaron Traffas

Picture by Aaron Traffas

As I was browsing my daily news feeds this morning, I came across an article about Skyfire.

I got my Treo 700wx based on Windows Mobile 5 in November of 2006. Its coolness lasted for several months, but I started wanting for more when the iPhone and Windows Mobile 6 came out. The biggest missing pieces from my phone’s browsing experience were Javascript and Flash. Skyfire is a browser for Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems that just rewrote the rules.

Flash support
It supports true Flash and AJAX. I just watched my Auctioneer Tech YouTube video on my Treo in the Skyfire browser.

Search
It has a single address bar at the top that functions like the bar in Chrome that allows you to enter a website or a search query. The searches are displayed in a custom-skinned results page that, by default, lists results from Google. At the top is a tab that lets you quickly switch to results from Yahoo! without re-keying your query. It also offers to add this search bar on your home page, allowing for quick searches without loading Skyfire first.

Interface
One of the biggest secrets of effective use of the Treo is leaving the stylus in the holder. Using the stylus slows you down. The problem with browsing with Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile is that using the four-way navigational selector on the Treo left you at the mercy of the tab-stops built into web pages. It was clumsy, but still better than navigating with the stylus. Skyfire gives you a mouse. Or at least a pointer that is controlled by the four-way selector. It lets you browse the web as you would on your PC, allowing zoom similar to Safari on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Speed
What Google Chrome is to a PC, Skyfire is to a PocketPC. The speed gain is amazing. This gain is accomplished by the rendering being performed on the server side. Skyfire’s servers take the page you’re trying to view, render the content, compress it and send the rendered information to your phone. This process means that the phone is simply displaying content, not deciding based on the code how that content should be displayed on the page. The user agent reported to the web server is Firefox 2 on Windows XP, so it looks like they’re using Gecko to render. Want to be blown away by numbers? Look at the speed chart posted by MacRumors.

I’m fewer than 20 minutes into being a Skyfire user. I’m bound to eventually find something I dislike about it, but right now I can’t imagine what that something may be. If you want to turn your Windows Mobile browsing capabilities into something much closer to the iPhone – arguably better since the iPhone doesn’t support Flash – then I definitely recommend installing Skyfire. If you find something you don’t like about this browser, let me know in the comments.

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Types of Internet bidding and classes of providers

There are three main types of Internet bidding. Some Internet bidding providers allow some but not all of the types of auctions. I’ll cover some of the basics here, with future articles and podcasts building on these topics by discussing the combinations of the types of Internet bidding as well as going deeper into the benefits of certain types of auctions and providers.

Types of Internet bidding

Internet only
When the items sell based solely on the bids from the Internet, it’s an Internet only auction. Internet only auctions may have a bid caller and they may have a crowd, but when software is calculating the time remaining and the current and final bid prices, it’s an Internet only auction. Internet only bidding is sometimes referred to as an eBay-style or static auction, but those are horrific terms for it. Modern Internet only auctions have staggered endings and automatic extensions, more closely simulating a live auction. These modifications move the game so far away from eBay rules that there isn’t a legitimate comparison. The term static implies nothing changes. It’s very definition means fixed or motionless and the auction industry is doing itself an enormous disservice by using the word static to refer to this very active and exciting method of bidding. This method drastically lowers overhead, as well as provides a viable means of selling small groups of assets in multiple locations.

The Purple Wave auction situation room with on...

The Purple Wave auction situation room

Pre-auction Internet bidding
Pre-auction bidding is the method of accepting Internet bids up to a point slightly before the auction begins to end and representing the Internet bids as absentee bids against the live crowd. This method offers the advantage of increased speed of the event as the auctioneer can see everyone who can possibly bid and doesn’t have to wait for an Internet bidder he can’t see. When the live crowd is done bidding he can sell the item and move on. It offers the convenience for buyers to place bids without having to attend the event or sit in front of a computer.

Real-time Internet bidding
Real-time bidding is probably the most common type of Internet bidding currently. The process involves an audio or perhaps video stream so that buyers can view the auction as it happens on their computers. They can place bids during the auction based on the audio and the display of the current bid price on their computers. This method has the advantage of allowing bids right up until the second the item closes, but forces users to wait in front of their computers until the items in which they’re interested sell. Many buyers no longer have that time available, or, when first seeing the auction, plan to sit in front of the computer during the event but forget by the time the auction starts to end.

Classes of Internet bidding providers

Portal site solutions
When Internet bidding is offered but that bidding occurs on the website of a third party, that third party is a portal. That is, auctions from many auction firms are listed and the bidding is all handled within that site. This method offers the benefit of cross-promotion, where the customers driven to the site by one auctioneer may see the assets listed of another. The downside is that it makes brand-building very difficult and makes buyer retention next to impossible. This kind of solution is very good for an auctioneer who needs results quickly. Examples of this kind of provider include Proxibid, Bidspotter, AuctionFLEX, and NAA Live.

Integrated solutions
The concept of an integrated Internet bidding solution is less well-known in the industry. An integrated solution embeds the Internet bidding pages within the website of the auctioneer. The software may not reside physically on the auctioneers’ servers, but the website is built so that the buyer can’t tell the difference and never sees any logo or promotional materials of the provider. This method has the advantage of being excellent for building a brand and buyer retention, but has the disadvantage of taking some time to build a buyer base. Examples of this kind of provider include JBS Software’s Maxanet and NextLot.

Do you use a provider other than those listed above? Let me know in the comments so I can learn about them and reference them in the future.

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Adobe alternatives make PDF easier, cheaper

I admitted on Saturday that there were indeed some good uses for the PDF. If, after analyzing the situation, PDF seems like the right tool for the job, here are some ways to make its use less painless and less expensive.

Adobe has two products related to PDF use and creation. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the free product that it makes available to everyone on all platforms to view PDF documents. Adobe Acrobat is the program that creates PDF files. As of the time of this writing, Adobe Acrobat Professional 9 for Windows is $419.99 on Newegg.com.

Adobe Acrobat Reader alternatives

Why would I advocate the use of one free program over another? Bloat. Adobe’s Acrobat Reader takes eons to load, making you wait to view the content that you realized wasn’t available any other way causing you to begrudgingly click the PDF link.  Adobe Reader’s install size is nearly 20 MB. There are two free programs that are much smaller and much faster.

Foxit Reader-1

Image by PiPiWa via Flickr

Foxit Reader
Foxit Reader is the best Acrobat Reader alternative I’ve seen. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and haven’t found an issue with it. It’s only 2.55 MB to download, which makes you wonder what Adobe is doing with their 20 MB. Occasionally, I’ve found that there are some PDFs that require an add-on to Foxit in order to view them properly, so each time I install it I take care to install the extra image decoders from the built-in update system. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Click Help then click Check for updates now…
  2. Select the “JPEG2000 and JBIG2 Image Decoders” option
  3. Click Add then click Install

The update checker will also allow you to install newer versions of the software when they are released.

Sumatra PDF

Image via Wikipedia

Sumatra PDF
For enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice a few features for blazing fast speed of launch and viewing, Sumatra PDF is the answer. The installation file is just under 1 MB and the program itself has only a single executable file with no dependencies, so you can run it from a USB key if you’re traveling. If all you’re doing is viewing PDFs, you can save a few seconds by using Sumatra for normal viewing and falling back to Foxit if you come a cross a file that Sumatra can’t render or you need to complete the evil PDF forms.

Adobe Acrobat alternatives

$419 is a lot of money. It’s really a lot for software, and when it’s for software that simply creates a document based on an open specification and there are free alternatives that do the same thing, it begs the question why anyone would actually purchase that software.

PDFCreator
I started using PDFCreator back in the days of Windows XP. It served me well. It installs as a printer and whenever you want to create a PDF from any application, simply tell that application to print and select PDFCreator as your printer. A dialog box will then open, asking you where you want the file to be saved. It’s as simple as that. The latest version was just released last Friday, and boasts full Vista support.

CutePDF Writer
When Windows Vista was first released, PDFCreator didn’t support it. I needed a free, Vista-capable PDF creation program and found it in CutePDF. I’ve been using CutePDF for Vista since Vista came out and have been quite satisfied with it. It functions nearly identically to PDFCreator. While I haven’t had any problems with it, it’s free but not open source like PDFCreator, so I’m probably going to migrate back to PDFCreator now that it fully supports Vista.

Other PDF tools

Sometimes it’s necessary to make changes to a PDF when the source files aren’t available. Some people believe that PDF is a good choice when you don’t want the user to be able to edit the file. The truth is that because it’s an open standard, there really isn’t a way to effectively lock it down to prevent users from editing PDFs.

PDF Split and Merge
pdfsam is a program that will allow you to work with PDFs on the page level, allowing you to insert a page from one PDF between two pages on another, or join two smaller PDFs into one large PDF.

Lifehacker has a recent article about various PDF programs, and while their attitude towards PDFs is a little more positive than mine, the article does a good job listing programs and services that let you do neat things to PDF files.
I’ve covered some of the free and open source PDF tools here, and while there are several others I’ve probably missed, there are many, many commercial tools that are quite inexpensive compared to Acrobat. There are also web-based services that can do the same.

Have you had problems with one of the tools mentioned above? Have you found a task that can only be done with Adobe’s products? Let me know in the comments.

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PDF should be optional on web

Latest PDF File Icon

Image via Wikipedia

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format created by Adobe in 1993. As of July 1, 2008, it’s an ISO standard, which means that the format is open and published so that anyone can create it or use it.

There are many misconceptions about the proper use of PDFs, and today I’m going to try to explain how to properly use PDFs on the Internet. Monday I’ll give a couple of faster, easier alternatives to Adobe’s bloated Reader product and discuss some tools to create PDFs without having to use Adobe’s obscenely expensive Acrobat product.

The advantage that PDF has over other file formats is that it’s a good way to represent printed material exactly as the designer intended it. This advantage makes it good to use for contracts and brochures where the user doesn’t need to change the content and is willing to jump through some extra hoops to view the content in a layout that approximates the printed page. It’s a great format for designers to send to printers because it ensures that the content is displayed exactly as the designer intended.

The disadvantage that PDF has is on the Internet. The Internet isn’t a format that is supposed to resemble the printed page. Because the PDF format – for good reason – isn’t supported by any browser, the user must use a browser plug-in to view the content, souring the browsing experience. For this reason, the use of PDFs on websites should be limited to an optional content delivery mechanism.

An example of a very bad use of PDF is for a website selling real estate. The designer used PDF to send the property information document to the printer. The PDF is uploaded to the website and a link is placed on a sparse page that says “download property information document” for information about this property. This breaks the first rule of accessible website design, which is don’t force the user to use a plug-in or add-on to view content. Most browsers with the plug-in installed open the page in a new tab, breaking another first rule of web design which is don’t open new tabs or windows. Search engines index PDFs, but if you click on a search result that is a PDF you’ll be taken straight to the PDF which lacks a navigational system for the user to get to your main website.

An example of a very good use of PDF is for the same website to have every piece of information within the property document delivered as valid XHTML / CSS on the website page with an optional download for users who want to physically print the information about the property. In this case, the user can browse the property information at browser speeds rather than having to wait for and be confused by the loading of a plugin. Even the example property contracts should be first delivered on the website and also made available as PDF for users who want that method as an option.

The very best use of PDF is to not use it at all, delivering the content by XHTML and the layout by two style sheets, one CSS for the screen and one print style sheet, so that the website looks one way on the screen but when the website is printed it looks like the property information document. This is a more advanced website design technique that I’ll try to cover later.

To summarize, PDF has its uses. Just remember that as a content delivery system on the Internet it falls short.

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phpList provides free and easy bulk email list management

One of the best marketing techniques for auctioneers and everyone else who is running a business is proper management of an email list. Keeping a list of emails in Excel and copying that list into the BCC field of Outlook does NOT count.

There are rules put in place due to the proliferation of spam. The CAN-SPAM Act has a couple of take-aways.

  • You can’t spoof the from address
  • You can’t use misleading subject lines
  • You must identify your email as a solicitation
  • You have to provide a means of opt-out

Every opportunity should be taken to capture customers’ or prospective customers’ email addresses at every point of contact.

Every time you register someone at an auction, you should have a form on the part of the bid card that you keep that asks him/her for an email address with a check box to opt in to your email list. Every contract you sign with a seller should have a line for email address. You never know when the person who signs up to sell coins will be the person who sees the email about the real estate you’re selling. Always send your emails to everyone on your list. Segmenting your list into coins, real estate, or antiques only means that you’re not exposing your merchandise to as many prospective buyers as possible.

Every web page should have either a subscription form or a link to a page where the customer can subscribe. I’m an advocate of placing the subscription form directly on the front page of your site. It’s not more important than your auction list – which is why people come to your site – but there’s usually a way to put a small form on the sidebar or in the header.

What happens when the user clicks submit? The easiest system to build is simply a form that emails you the contents of the user’s input. This system requires manual storage of the addresses. Remember the last of the four take-aways from the CAN-SPAM Act? Providing an opt-out means allowing the user to remove himself/herself from your email list. If you store your email list in a spreadsheet and someone requests an opt-out, you go and remove that entry. Should that person’s name be added again by accident, you could get into some trouble by sending to that person after the opt-out has been requested.

A far better solution is for that email subscription form submission to store the email address, name and whatever other fields you require in a database. That way, everything is automated and when someone requests to opt-out, the entry is flagged as unsubscribed but not deleted. This prevents the user from being resubscribed by accident in the future. This system is much more difficult, and would require several hours to build the storage system, to say nothing of the time required to build a system to automate the sending of the emails.

Logo for phpListThis is where the open source and free phpList comes to the rescue. It’s a web script that runs on your server once it’s installed and manages all of the above issues for you. It’s as easy to use as any desktop application, but it’s web-based so you don’t have any software to install on your computer. They’ll even install it for you if you don’t have a geek who can take the three minutes to install it or if you don’t have a hosting provider that automates the process.

Once the software is installed, you simply login with your user name and password like you’d login to your webmail. You can manage lists, upload email addresses, export your list – anything you can think of they’ve included. You can view a live demo to see what it looks like and explore all the features it offers.

Other products frequently used by auctioneers include AuctionServices’s IBEAM and ConstantContact. Neither service is free and neither runs on your own server. If you’re hosted by AuctionServices or if you don’t have the ability to let someone install a program on your server, one of these may be a better choice for your situation than phpList.

phpList is the most robust and feature rich email package I’ve seen. It offers complete subscription and unsubscription page customization, unlimited lists, unlimited sizes, HTML or text emails – all for the cost of having someone spend a few minutes to install the script.

Do you use something other than the products mentioned above? Have you had problems with phpList? Have you figured out how to scale Outlook or another email client so that it’s effective above 100 emails? Let me know in the comments.

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