Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Pleasant Family Photo Experience

For years, I dreaded the family photo taken by the company that came to our church. Not only did the photo lack any sort of creativity (I was a budding photographer as a child), but I remember hearing my parents complain about the cost.

Plus, it was a pain. We had to dress up for the sitting, go and smile like we meant it, then come back a few weeks later when the fi lm had been processed and the proofs were ready. Then a pushy salesperson would try to sell us way too many photos that we didn’t really need.

As an adult, I have had similar reservations about the photography companies that come to our church.

It always seemed that we were paying way too much for the photos and receiving way too little.

But this weekend, I turned a corner.

Every few years, our church has invited Olan Mills to come and take pictures of our congregation.

Their commitment to the church is that every member will receive a complimentary 8-by-10 family portrait and a color directory of the church membership. Of course, they don’t make any money if people only go for the free stuff, so it’s implied that they’ll try to sell you photos of your family.

In the past, we’ve gone along with this and reluctantly purchased some of the photos for ourselves as well as some relatives.

But what has turned me around is how technology has affected Olan Mills’s ability to deliver real value for the money.

First, by making all of their photography digital, you have your photo and sales “consultation” in the same visit. I’m sure this saves Olan Mills lots of money because they only have to have people visit the site once. Additionally, I’m sure there were a lot of “no shows” for the second appointment.

Second, the ability to make shortruns of church directories means that the cost to offer these directories to congregations is far more affordable than it ever has been. And the fact that everything is digital and directto- printer means that they avoid huge costs of printing full color.

Third, retouching digital images can be automated, whereas retouching negatives or slides can be very time consuming.

Fourth, if there’s a problem with a photo, such as someone who blinked at the wrong time or a shadow that causes problems, they know (and remedy) it at the time of the photo rather than when it comes out of the darkroom.

Fifth, the software that Olan Mills uses for making the sale is clearly a custom-written application. It shows you exactly what you’re going to get, you can compare and contrast photos side by side, and it calculates the appropriate invoices right on the spot.

The only low-tech aspect I saw was an old dot matrix printer that hammered out receipts on multi-part paper. (I had thought they’d be using laser printers by now.)

Sixth, you can now receive your photos on a CD. My previous visit with Olan Mills did not allow them to provide you with a digital version of the files.

But this visit, the more product you bought, the cheaper the CD became, starting at $150 if you bought nothing down to a nominal $20 if you bought more than $150 worth of their products. While I believe you are restricted to using the photos for non-commercial applications, if I want to make a print of my family or children for relatives or other purposes, having a studio quality digital photo will certainly come in handy.

Lastly, when I look at what we received for our money, I don’t think I spent any more this year than I did a few years ago. And I believe I received more value for our money than I did last time.

I still think all the photos look a lot alike, but I’ve come to the realization that in a studio setting and for a directory, that similarity is really what we want.

There are plenty of other photographers who can take a family portrait at the beach, in a park or somewhere that will be more personal. I bet it’ll cost a lot more than our Olan Mills visit, though.

But I’m glad to see that at least one of the traveling photo studio companies has embraced technology that delivers more value for the money. Sometimes technology really delivers.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 28 October 2009.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dilemma of Being Connected

Before the Internet became a part of everyday life, it was easy to compartmentalize it because most of us had to access the Internet via a telephone dial-up connection. As this required one to be connected to a telephone land line,

Internet access required being in a physical location and not mobile.

Eventually, high speed Internet access became available which allowed people to be connected to the Internet all the time. WiFi gave people mobility within the small WiFi "bubbles".

And the WiFi bubbles populated nicely, only in the past few years with people securing them so that passersby couldn't jump on freely.

During this same time, mobile phones continued to be more functional, have longer battery lives, and receive far better geographic coverage.

When mobile phones started having Internet access, the ability for really mobile Internet access became a reality.

All of the major cellular carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) offer high speed wireless Internet access for personal computers and handheld devices.

At each step along the way, there have been places where people have been out of the reach of modern communications. Some have considered being "disconnected" a benefit and others consider it to be a drawback.

Some of these disconnected places include one's automobile and on airplanes.

But even these disconnected places are no longer disconnected.

I recently saw a ruggedized device that can be put in cars that creates a WiFi hotspot for a half dozen users, say a family on a road trip or business associates on a long drive. A similar device called a MyFi allows up to five people to connect to a portable WiFi hotspot, again using the cellular network to connect.

But there's been one place that's been pretty certain you won't have Internet access: on airplanes.

Lufthansa tried in flight Internet access a few years ago and stopped. But AirCell ( is one company bringing in flight Internet access is back with new airlines, including Delta, USAirways, American, Virgin America, and AirTran.

I'm taking a flight to California later this week on Delta and I plan on giving in flight Internet service a try. It will be curious to see how well it works with my laptop computer and whether some of the features that require reasonably good Internet access, such as making telephone calls using Skype or watching television shows using will work satisfactorily.

For many people who travel a lot, being on an airplane has been a bit of a respite, if not a frustration to be out of touch for any time at all. I know some who cherish the isolation because they can focus on their work without interruptions; I know others who can't wait until they land to check in with the office, clients, and eBay auctions.

As my trip this week will be with my family, whether I get to use my computer for myself or whether my kids will want it for themselves will depend on how fast the Internet connection is as well as whether there are individual TVs at each seat.

So while airplanes seemed to be one of the last few remaining places on earth without Internet access, I know that some backpackers and explorers still manage to do without the Internet for more than a few days at a time. However, even they - if they really want it - can take satellite Internet devices with them.

Maybe the next step go going without Internet will require leaving Earth, but I've been wanting that since I saw my first rocket launch as a young boy. I guess leaving Earth will be a few years in the future still.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 October 2009.
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