IcoBlog: May 2008

The official Blog of Iconico & SoftwareMarketingResource

Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Data Layer for BitsDuJour

This post has moved here:
New Data Layer for BitsDuJour
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Standardizing Software Updates

As shareware authors we've all written chunks of code that fire up an Internet connection when the software opens and silently check to see if a new version is available. Sometimes these can be a little annoying, Subversion has a habit of showing me a little popup window every single time that I use it to state that a new build has gone up, yes thanks guys but I really don't care that I'm a few dot releases behind!

Obviously a better design is needed here so i don't have to click the 'Ok' button, a simple status bar message in the main window would do it, but these are user interface issues and I digress!

After writing my last post on standardization of e-commerce providers it struck me that software updating is another place where standardization might be really useful. I'm usually a PC guy, but occasionally I see something that Apple have done very nicely and one of those is it's updater, which looks something like this.

The great thing about this is that all of your software updates are right there, in one place, easy to see and with details on what's in the update. Now as far as I'm aware the same type of global software updater for every piece of software doesn't exist for Windows. This is as you might expect, there's more Windows software out there and Microsoft have historically exerted less control over their application providers than Apple has. The closest thing I could find was this little app from VersionTracker which uses their online database to report updates.

Certainly on the right track but one star out of five on a download.com review doesn't exactly inspire confidence. I can understand why it only got one star too; there's no standard way of writing the update code and it's basically guessing using the name of the executable!

So what's needed is this. If all our PCs had on them a single XML file which listed the current software installed and how to get an update of it then we'd be set. The XML file would need:

- The name of the software
- The current version number
- The URL to check for updates

The next part is this, the URL which checks for updates brings back another URL file, and for this one you could actually use a PAD file. A PAD file (Portable Application Description) is an XML file with a bunch of information about the software, and it's widely used by independent software vendors. The important thing for our purposes here is that the PAD file has the current version number of the software, and also the URL of the installer and notes on what's changed in the latest version. If you couple this with the desktop file list above then that's all you need to build a global software updater!

What I like about this solution is that it's going to benefit all software developers. It's a single place for file data to be stored, and the actual application that does the updating is independent of the desktop XML file itself. Obviously it's going to need traction in the community to get going, and there would have to be agreement on where the file is stored and how applications should write to it but I think that it should benefit all. in addition, once this global software list is in place you should be able to start doing some really interesting things with it, but I'll leave all that for another post.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Email Extractor 2.3 Released

Email Extractor We've just released an updated version of the Email Extractor. The application, which backs up emails from Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and Eudora, now has included within it an Email Hunter plugin for Internet Explorer, allowing you to quietly collect email addresses as you surf.

You can also use the app to extract email addresses out of emails that you have saved in a folder. Very handy if you want to build up a mailing list out of a group of purchase receipt emails. Included are configurable filters so that you only get the emails that you want.

The software is available on trial download and can be purchased for $29.50. The software also comes as part of the Extraction Pack, containing our Data Extractor and HTML Text Extractor.
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Standardizing Shareware E-Commerce Providers

We've been working with all of the big shareware e-commerce providers for some time now, both as a vendor running Iconico and as an affiliate running BitsDuJour and I had an idea a while back that I thought would be of great benefit to everyone in the industry. I originally posted this a in the ASP newsgroups (posted January 3rd 2008 if you're a member and want to find the original thread), and several e-commerce providers were interested. Unfortunately I don't have the time to champion the cause on this, but I'd thought I would repost it here, hopefully this can be picked up by the right people at the right time.

The problem as it stands right now is that there are so many propriety systems out there that handle e-commerce transactions and they are all totally different. To create a system that builds on them, or interfaces with them is so daunting and complicated, believe me, I've done it and it's not straightforward. All the purchase links are formatted differently, coupons are supported in unique and differing ways, and the list goes on. Now I'm all for innovation and I welcome that some of the old systems like RegNet and RegSoft are gradually getting dropped and that new ones like FastSpring and Avangate have sprung up, it's just frustrating to see the wheel reinvented differently every time.

One place where I think standardization is needed is in sales reporting. Simply to get your sales data requires that you log in, do a lot of copying and pasting, aggregation in Excel and you have to remember the quirks of each system as they are all different. Some systems don't even allow you to see the exact commission you've earned until your payment is created. Other systems only total up the sales. Some require you to save your emails and then parse them, praying that you didn't miss one of them. The support for adding tracking ids to purchases is spotty at best. Now this is more of a pain for affiliates than for vendors as vendors usually have one payment processor, but affiliates have to deal with all of them. I'm talking about Avangate, BMT Micro, Cleverbridge, element5/ShareIT, eSellerate, Fastspring, Kagi, OneNetwork, Plimus, RegNow, RegSoft and SWReg, and those are just the popular ones. Half of those are owned by Digital River, but the systems are still unique to themselves, difficult to use, and non-standard. It's a mess.

I think it's high time that we have some standardization across the industry, and following in the footsteps in the way PAD standardized software descriptions I propose that we create a standardized system for reporting software sales. This I think would be a good first step and something that it would be easy for the e-commerce providers to get on board with. I'm talking about an XML file format here, and it should detail exactly what was sold to when, where and who bought it, how much and all the details that you need. I propose one format for vendors with all the details, and a second slimmed down version for affiliates which protects the privacy of the purchaser but gives the affiliate the details they need.

I really don't think that this should be too hard for the e-commerce providers to create this, it's just a different reporting format, and I can only see benefits to them and too us as vendors and as affiliates. It will allow for easier processing and time savings for everyone, and the possibility of integrating e-commerce providers with a wide variety of reporting software, shipment and tracking systems, heck I can see a small industry of secondary products sprouting up around this. In a nutshell I can see this simple change saving time money, and creating more opportunities to sell. I know this is just a first step, but this alone could really help how our industry operates and bottom line create more revenue for everyone.

In the original ASP posting we actually had five e-commerce providers give an unofficial thumbs up to this; I'd love to see it be transformed into something workable.

Monday, May 19, 2008

New Site Design for Iconico.com

To coincide with the launch of icoBlog.com we've put up a new design for iconico.com. We wanted to fix a couple of visual issues with our earlier layout which has served us since 2006. The new design we're calling 'Tablet' and looks something like this:

The main problem that we had with the earlier design was that the little sections seems to float on the page background, without being anchored together as a cohesive page. We added an encompassing semi-transparent tablet and aligned the entire page centrally. We also removed the hard boxed lines around each page section, replacing this with a full sidebar and a white content panel, hopefully the result is a lot less harsher with the dark blue borders gone and the orange accent color used more liberally. Generally we wanted to make the site a little friendlier, and a little less like the old style portal webistes with boxes everywhere.

You can see here the 2006 design which has the "floating boxes" problem:

Next came a redesign of our logo. There's always been a little confusion in how to pronounce iconico. I've always said "eye-Conic-o", with the stress on the first "C", but often people pronounce it "eyeko-Neeco" with the stress on the "N". My reason for the former pronunciation was that I always wanted an "iconic company", hence the name. Then there are some people who pronounce it "EE-ko-NEE-ko", but that's just silly. Anyway, part of the logo change with the new orange "O' at the end is to visually help in the pronunciation. In addition it works for icoBlog, and another site that we'll be launching soon. You can see below that our logo has remained pretty much unchanged since 2005, with this earlier design:

You'll notice liberal use of semi-transparent backgrounds in the new design, which is something that we've wanted to do for quite some time now, and have been using on a lot of our consulting client's projects to great effect. These are accomplished using PNG images, which are supported naively in Firefox, Opera, Safari and Internet Explorer 7. We use the marvelous pngFix library for jQuery for downgrade browser support. What that does is automatically re-write the CSS code to use Microsoft's css filters so that the backgrounds show up in IE6 and IE5.5. You will notice that the image backgrounds do pop into place, so it's not a seamless load of the page, but with only 3% of our visitors using IE6 or earlier we thought this was a fine compromise to make, and a really neat solution. If you really want to see the transparency in effect have a look at the three holes that we've used to separate items in the sidebar. If you resize the page you'll see that the page background flows underneath. That's all done with PNG transparencies, and after years of pushing GIFs and JPGs it's a real pleasure to be able to code.

To make the latest change to the site we actually only touched about six files and twenty or so images. Evey page was left exactly the same. This is all down to a central CSS file, and a hand made template system. Below is a 2002 version of the site, which had pretty much the same HTML structure as we're using today, although the navigation has undergone some major renovation the pages themselves have not need to be updated. Just goes to show that it plans to think ahead when structuring your HTML.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Welcome to icoBlog.com

To those of you who frequent Iconico.com and BitsDuJour.com you'll know that we've never had a blog, well with the launch of icoBlog.com we're very happy that that has all changed! The release coincides with our new site redesign, which we're sporting here.

We've got a lot of plans for icoBlog, starting off with all our latest news and updates, but we're also going to be giving away marketing tips for software developers and publishers, technical articles on web design and usability and our own 2 cents on everything related to running a web-centric software company.

So lets kick things off by a few introductions and a little back story if you're new to the site. Iconico, Inc. was formed several years back by myself, Nico Westerdale, and came from humble beginnings. Our initial piece of design software, the Screen Calipers, and the free ColorPic kicked off Iconico.com, and over the ranks our range of software titles has swelled to include a whole host of indispensable applications. Over the recent years we've concentrated more and more on the marketing side of software, and we started to partner with developers and sell their software through Iconico. Iconico's focus has always been on software that's effortless to use, and of course we do our fair share of consulting too with a host of top-notch techies on tap here in New York City for the larger projects we get involved with.

This was all going very smoothly until last year I got an email stating that BitsDuJour.com was for sale. If you don't know BDJ (or "Bits" as we affectionately call it) offers daily discount deals on software, getting those deals straight from the developers. We took on BDJ, and totally re-wrote it using ASP.NET, providing a platform that we've been promoting in all types of interesting ways. Of course all this promotion requires a full time editor, and Roger Thomasson fills those shoes, selecting software and writing reviews for BDJ and has some great tips that I'm sure he'll share here on micro-marketing.

Well that's the overview, welcome to icoBlog. We'll have much much more on what I've touched on here, and we'll be sharing the lessons learnt on what can be a tough business. As always feel free to comment or get in touch.
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