10 Years since WebCentral


It has been 10 years almost to the day that I sold WebCentral to Malcolm Turnbull’s listed company FTR who then 3 years later resold it to Melbourne IT.

Given we started in a garage in Morningside in the late 1980’s and upon exit the business was valued at $45m, it was both a fun and rewarding ride filled with many great moments.

WebCentral, for its time, was an extremely innovative and forward thinking business.

We supported Microsoft Frontpage extensions on a Windows NT server when most hosting was done on Unix. We had to have technicians clicking RESTART Server every time a server crashed but developers wanted support for Microsoft products which latter become .NET and visual studio.

We built DeskControl in 2001 which was designed to be a single logon for businesses to access some basic shared services which included calendars, instant messaging and notes. But we also included more advanced products like “WebCentral Managed Exchange, as well as hosted instances of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It was a turn-key secure intranet for small businesses. I like to think of DeskControl as an early version of Google Apps.

WebCentral was also the first hosting company in the world to build the Managed Microsoft Exchange offering. You know you are doing something interesting when Microsoft sends two senior engineers from Seattle to your office for a couple weeks to find out how did you configure Exchange to provide a replicable and scalable service offering for small business. In recognition for this, we won the Microsoft Global Hosting Partner award for 2004.

Then there was our instantly provisioned dedicated server offering called 10 Second Server (10secondserver.com).  This was at a time when virtualisation was not even thought of. Thanks to some very advanced provisioning scripts mixed with the leading edge hardware management practices, our clients were able to join online with a credit card and a standalone dedicated web server would be provisioned from bare metal in just 10 seconds.

Then there were the many outstanding sales team achievements.  We provided white label shared web hosting offerings for many major Telco’s and ISP’s including Telstra, Optus, AAPT and OzEmail.

Of course, none of this could have been achieved without a fantastic team of talented and committed people. Many of whom have gone onto much bigger things. Old WebCentral staff now hold senior positions in Microsoft, Adobe, Google, IBM as well several who have moved to silicon valley and built successful innovative startups. It has been rewarding for me personally to follow the rise of many an employee’s IT career following on from their years learning the ropes at WebCentral.

Now, 10 years on and I find myself immersed in a new start-up business called Cloudstaff which is servicing the outsourcing and up skilling needs of many Australian small to medium businesses. Just like WebCentral, Cloudstaff also leverages a subscription revenue model that’s helping drive its triple digit growth.

Surrounded by a team of talented and enthusiastic individuals with a hunger and willingness to learn, I also find myself re-establishing many of the “use technology to make replicable and scalable service offering” lessons which under pinned WebCentral.

Cloudstaff now has twice the many people that WebCentral had at it’s peak and shortly we will have 5,000m of office space between 4 locations.

Also, the tenant of building a company culture of fun, blended with innovation and reward are also alive and well. Today, my staff members are my business. So CloudStaff has been built with company culture as its central pillar.

At WebCentral I copped a fair bit of flack from the board for spending AUD $250,000 on our Christmas Parties. Last weekend I spent 1,000,000 peso on our Mid year team building and took the whole company away to a beach resort. It was big, huge, loud and there was a massive beach fireworks party (WebCentral never let me set fireworks off from the roof of the datacenter).

In this part of the world the sign of a good team building is how many people do you find sitting on the beach having a beer and watching the sun come up and I am pleased to say we accomplished that with flying colour on Sunday morning.

The Internet for Business has changed the way we communicate, the way we research, the way we entertain, the way we play and the way that we purchase.

The one thing that has surprised me is how much similarities there are between these two business models. The knowledge and know-how gained from WebCentral to continue to establish Cloudstaff as a business that leverages the Internet while helping Aussie businesses to grow a globally competitive.



The Challenge with new form factors – Microsoft and Google fail!


We have an “Auto-buy” arrangement with some of our local phone suppliers. When a new phone or tablet comes onto the market, they just send it over and if we don’t have it in our QA labs, we’ll buy it. Deliveries to the QA test lab usually consist of small boxes of the latest mobile phones and sometimes there is a new tablet, but a few weeks ago an enormous box turned up. Inside was the new 21” Android powered HP Slate. Basically an enormous 21” Android powered tablet.

I use a Samsung Note 8 as my primary phone. I LOVE lots of screen real estate. The HP Slate is designed for the desktop, a mains powered (no battery) 21” screen running Android 4.2.  I quickly developed a liking for this mega beast of screen real estate. It is FAST (there is an NVIDIA® Tegra® 4 processor which combines CPU with a graphics chip), the screen is physically HUGE (1920 x 1080 pixels) and  it uses an IPS display so is bright and clear and can be viewed from all angles. There is built in Wi-Fi and an ethernet port on the back, along with 3 x USB 2.0 ports, SD card and mic/headphone. Inside the box is a mouse and keyboard.

 I instantly started to think about where I might be able to use these in our office. The large screen has a wide viewing angle, great sound and a keyboard so I thought they would be a great addition to our small meeting rooms. They would be perfect for showing a presentation to a few people, or for a Skype interview with customers, etc. Just maybe, the Slate 21 could replace the desktop PC of some users like the reception and concierge staff?

The Slate 21 also supports user profiles, so users can have their own settings and password.

Now to test it…

Google #Fail#

Try and  remember the first time as a child you felt truly let down. Maybe it was that Batman and Robin show bag you spent your hard earned pocket money on at the local fair, the one which only had cheap plastic trinkets and an old chocolate bar well past its use-by date.  Look back to the BMX bike you were expecting for Christmas, only to find a Steve Austin 6 million dollar man doll in your stocking…or to that very last bottle of 2010 Lafite-Rothschild, the one you were saving for a special occasion, and discovered it had turned into expensive vinegar?

My enthusiasm for the HP Slate 21 quickly evaporated when I attempted to get my Google Mail working on it. At Cloudstaff, we use 2 factor Authentication for our email and we require all users to have the Google Apps Device Policy application installed on all Android devices which connect to our Google Docs. It makes these devices more secure, you can ring or locate a lost device, remotely lock a device or change the PIN and Administrators can enforce security policies and remotely wipe devices.

Unfortunately, this device appears not to be supported by Google…

What’s going on, Google? Are you kidding? Why would you limit the support of this application?

Now, it is possible to Access your email via a web browser like Chrome, but it’s not the same thing to me; I want the native email program on the Slate 21, I want my Google Drive, my contacts, auto syncing, etc.

So if you are using it for home, the Slate 21 is probably not a bad option, but if you are a business or corporate user who follows Google best practices security and encourages BYOD or secure access from home, then there are far better products available.

Microsoft #Fail#

Now let’s look at Microsoft. Skype is a pretty essential part of our business – our customers use it, so we need to use it. I am not a fan of the new Microsoft Skype for Android and now I have even more reason to dislike it. The Slate 21 has a physical keyboard and mouse (you can still use the on screen keyboard ) Er… Microsoft, let me ask you this – have you ever tested Skype and ANY android Tablet which uses a physical keyboard? Apparently not!  When you try to chat, the SEND message button just disappears as soon as the space key is pressed!


So should you be adding this to your QA Testing program?

If your Android application targets the home/education user, then yes.

Target market for this is people who are going to be using this in front of the TV to surf the web, email, Facebook and gaming.

Gaming is not too bad on the 21″ screen and the Tegra 4 processor is incredibly fast and the full HD display looks great.

Remember the device operates in Landscape mode so if your app uses portrait orientation only, it will be useless turning this on its side.

I’m confident   that Google will update the Google Apps Device Policy and come to the party. Sadly, Microsoft still have  a long way to go…

Note: This article was written in December 2013 but only recently posted.




PowerUp Internet

The evil overlords at Wikipedia bounced our PowerUp Page… will need to work on the references…..PowerUp was on the first ISPs in Queensland and become the largest, it is part of local Internet History.

This submission’s references do not adequately evidence the subject’s notability—see the guidelines on the notability of organizations and companies and the golden rule. Please improve the submission’s referencing, so that the information is verifiable, and there is clear evidence of why the subject is notable and worthy of inclusion in an encyclopedia.

PowerUp Internet

Small version of PowerUp Internet ISP Installation Disks




PowerUp Internet was founded by Lloyd Ernst, Byron Newton and Joe Altoff in late 1987. Originally established as the ‘Electric Dreams BBS (Bulletin Board Service)’ it grew to become Queensland’s largest Internet Service Provider.[1]

  • In 1998 the founders sold 55% of the PowerUp to OzEmail for AUD $666,666.66.[2]
  • In 1999 with the imminent introduction of cable broadband into Australia and the increasing commoditisation of the Dial Up the internet service the founders decided not to expand PowerUp into a national ISP which would require investing in Dial Up POPs in various exchanges. Instead they focused on creating a national web hosting company called WebCentral.
  • In 2000 the founders split the PowerUp ISP businesses and the WebCentral Web hosting business. They sold the remaining ISP customers to OzEmail and focusing on growing and expanding WebCentral.

WebCentral went on to become Australia’s largest hosting company. WebCentral commanded over 20% of the market. It was acquired by Melbourne IT in May 2006 for $61 million. WebCentral at that time had annual revenue of around $60 million and EBIT of $5.5 million.[3]

The CEO and co-founder of PowerUp and WebCentral Lloyd Ernst is now co-Founder of CloudStaff an Asian based outsourcing company which focuses in providing services to Australia and UK businesses.

PowerUp POPs

Although it originated as a Brisbane based Internet Servive Provider, PowerUp expanded regionally to include Dial In POPs in Brisbane, GoldCoast and Sunshine Costs to maximise their reach in South East Queensland.[4]

PowerUp Plans

PowerUp Offered 6 Dial Up Internet Plans – Which customers could choose to pay Monthly or Yearly. If users exceeded their allotted hours in a month they were billed at $1.80 per hour.

PowerUp Plans as of December 1999. (All Prices are in AUD)
PowerUp Internet ISP Plans

Commoditisation drove PowerUp to eventually also offer an Unlimited Access Plan at $35/month The Unlimited Access Plan required the user to dial a dedicated Phone number.
PowerUp Unlimited Plan


PowerUp FTP File Robot

One of the innovative features of Powerup was the FTP File Robot. PowerUp users could use a web page to request a file from the world wide web and the file would be copied down to a local PowerUp server. In a time when Internet service provision was timed per hour and modem speeds were low, downloading direct from the ISP (rather than over the web) was seen as a huge differentiator. The PowerUp File Robot was widely adopted as a file fetch concierge service by its members. PowerUp FTP Robot Request Screen



 External links

  • [www.abc.net.au/queensland/stories/s1449041.htm]
  • [www.caslon.com.au/austelecomsprofile4.htm]
  • [www.lloyde.com]

Category:Australian Information Technology


The real losers in the Apple-Samsung US decision

The real losers in the US Apple-Samsung decision
(and it’s not Samsung)

I am sure the jury in the Apple-Samsung US case followed the instructions carefully and did their job, but it reinforced to me that the patent system is broken. (Subsequent to writing this – people are questioning the 22 hours spent reviewing 109 pages and forms they were required to fill in AND remember a judge in the UK threw this out and made apple put an apology on their web site for 6 months)

The case exposes in detail how Apple conceives many of their innovative patents (none of which to me seemed truly groundbreaking – bounce to refresh, and pinch to zoom – hmmmm…). According to Apple’s testimony, they have a few guys in special super-secure section at Apple’s Cupertino HQ called the Purple Dorm, sitting around a kitchen table and banging out ideas.

Don’t get me wrong – I think innovation is terrific, but that some of these innovations shouldn’t be a case for a patent. Spend US$100m on developing and running trials on a new drug. That deserves a genuine patent.

There are guys in Pakistan, India, China, and Vietnam, all doing the same thing as the guys at Palo Alto kitchen table. They’re sitting in coffee shops, talking about innovation, but the difference is that Apple can then spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars on patenting those ideas.

Why I give Samsung credit!
Samsung does do something incredibly admirable, which Apple does not. Samsung produces a range of phones and devices which meet a wide range of budgets. Steve Jobs would say they he didn’t want to comprise the “experience” (or his profits). But Steve missed the point – that leaves a whole lot of people who will “go without.” Price is important in the third world and emerging markets, and Apple focuses only on the high-end segments.

Apple misses a huge potential consumer base by not being innovative in the low end. A typical Level 1 Philippine technical support guy will be lucky to be making ₱15,000 (US$355) per month. So a 16Gb iPhone 4, which costs $649 in the US, is far out of his/her budget.

In these emerging markets, Apple has “re-launched” the iPhone 3GS, but at US$350 it is still 3 to 4 times more expensive then an entry-level Samsung phone running Android.

And if the local telcom subsidizes the cost of the phone? The price of the phone still has to be covered one way or another – so the plans are still well outside the amount the locals can pay.

So along came the Android guys with smart phones starting at US$70. Sure, they have neither the same big screen nor the immersive experience, but they bring technology to a market that cannot afford the high-end iPhone – I think that is important.

Perhaps the guys in building Purple Dorm should be figuring out how to produce a phone which can appeal to the masses and not just one sector of the market (which they then want to lock up at the expense of everyone else).

Another Story
As a matter of interest, a 64Gb iPhone 4S costs a whopping 37% more in the Philippines than it does in the US. As you can see below, the differences are huge – but that’s another story.

Model  –  US  –  Philippines  –  Difference

16Gb  –  US$649  –  ₱37,690 ($894)  –  US$245

32Gb  –  US$749  –  ₱43,490 ($1,031)  –  US$282

64Gb  –  US$849  –  ₱49,290 ($1,169)  –  US$320


Note: The author’s first job was working for an Apple reseller. He currently owns and collects *LOTS* of Apple computers, uses an iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note, and is fast becoming a fan of Ubuntu.




Ink-Jet Nirvana

Six months ago I thought I had found it: Ink-Jet Nirvana. A land of never-ending rainbows of inexpensive colour.

Ink-Jet printers have revolutionized colour printing. It didn’t take long for printer manufactures to develop a winning business model: they nearly give away the printer, but the ink cartridges cost you an arm, a leg, and three of your offspring (and I mean the good offspring – not the ones that are going to wind up in prison).

Now, I am ok with this subsidized model except for the fact that they give you an infinitesimally small amount of ink. I guess the ink must be made of rare-earth minerals, which is why it is rationed with an eye-dropper. Not to mention that can anywhere between two and seven cartridges will all seem to need replacing at the most inconvenient time. And as soon as you replace one, there is another flashing light.

Hoarding didn’t work…
And don’t try to buy cartridges “on special!” and store them. I had an unused HP ink cartridge that when inserted told me it had expired: “The old ink might damage the print head, please insert a NEW cartridge”. Bloody hell, guys, it’s one thing to charge me a small fortune for the cartridge, but limiting the life of the cartridge using the lame-o excuse that it might damage the print head is highway robbery. If you’ll remember – the printer cost me next to nothing; why I am worried about damaging the print heads? I’ll just get another one – after all, they’re almost given away!

Clone cartridges didn’t work…
Next, I tried using clone cartridges from China. These typically include a box-cutter blade so you can cut the IC chip off the genuine ink cartridge and stick it on the clone with the enclosed double sided tape. This never seemed to work reliably. My HP wide-format printer always seemed to know when I was trying to fool it.

Bulk Tanks didn’t work…
I have also tried several aftermarket, bolt-on ink tank solutions – all with disastrous consequences. Not only have I destroyed two printers in attempting to install these tank systems (that’s ok they didn’t cost me much) but if you get a leak…it’s a tech problem that just “keeps on giving.” The bottom of the printer fills up with ink, the print head moves and sloshes the ink everywhere, and in your haste, you try to move the printer and ink overflows everywhere. I still have ink stains on my desk, walls, floors, and rubbish bins. Unmitigated Disaster.

Bulk ink system - get an expert to install :-)

Hello, Epson L100!
The folks over at Epson have created a printer that includes bulk ink containers on the side. There are trying to tap the price sensitivities of the local market. “Hassle Free and Ultra Low Running Cost with Super High Ink Capacity” is what the box says.

The printer itself costs about US$180. It is a narrow format A4, and its print speed is 27 pages/minute. There are four ink tanks: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (black is a double sized tank).

Now this is a pretty simple printer: no LED, no display, no fancy micro chip readers to make sure we’re using genuine Epson ink. But before you go and get all excited (like I did)…there is a catch.


The Catch
The printer driver (the software on the PC) requires you to enter the 13 digit serial number on the bottle of ink. So they still want you to buy ink. I can live with that, but it’s a pain in the arse to enter them all, and we had to find some workarounds for our ubuntu workstations. To Refill we just swap the printer out (see below)

So what is the bottom line?

The ink is about $6 bottle for 70ml. I can live with that. It works out to be a cent for grayscale printing and two cents per colour page.

We have about 10 of these now through out the office.

There is no ethernet port on the L100, just USB, so we use ethernet to USB servers, which work well. If there is a hint of a problem with a printer, a serious paper jam or the ink needs recharging, we just swap the printer with a spare and the techs fix it or recharge the ink later. The advantage with the ethernet/USB is that you are not changing the IP address of the device when you swap out printers.

There is even a tap on the printer which is used to turn the ink off so you can move it without the risk of ink leakage.

As foolproof as the Epson L100 is, I still managed to brand myself. (Maybe this is a sign that I should go colour laser.)

In a business like ours that is growing fast and doubling our staff numbers every 3 to 6 months, we obviously encourage our staff to work paperless. Sometimes, though, it just isn’t an option. When printing is a must, we need to do it as cost effectively as possible, making the Epson L100 is pretty good option.

So there you have it, this is not an article about how to rip off your Ink Jet company but more about they ways some organisation configure their product to sell into emerging markets.

Keyboard Aficionado

Last week as I pushed my way through the crowded maze of computer shops of the Golden Computer Center in Sham Shui Po (Hong Kong), I love all the rows and rows of small, open-front computer shops with all their products (lot of junk) cramped onto tables. Twenty years ago, these markets where were all the pirated software CDs were to be found. Now the pirated movies, software, and CDs are gone, but they’ve been replaced with computer accessories, all the odds and sods, from cables, battery chargers, and PC motherboards, to printers; you name it and it will be there somewhere. The art is knowing where to find it.

In the back corner, in the basement, was a small little store (all the stores here are small). There are hundreds of keyboards – all with some weird name like “Ducky,” “Power Tech,” and “Dragon Heaven.” As I walked by, I jokingly banged an ugly, chunky keyboard, thinking, “You have got to be kidding. Who in their right mind would buy a keyboard that ugly!?” ….Hang on…I was stopped dead in my tracks….I pressed a few more keys on the keyboard… I was taken back in time… It felt just like a keyboard on an old Televideo 920 terminal display, or the monster keyboard from an IBM PC AT.

WOW… how cool was this! What a great feel! This is how I discovered the “Ducky.”

Okay – it’s an amazingly uncool name, but one AMAZINGLY cool keyboard for those people who are a little bit old-school.

Keyboards today can be divided into two categories. The first is the super cheap and super nasty. These are the sort of keyboards that sell for $10 and have a life expectancy less than that of the high energy photons in a Higgs boson experiment. Then there are the modernista – keyboards whose aesthetics overrule substance. (I group most Apple keyboard in this category – sorry, fanboys). You can imagine a group of industrial designers drinking their double-decafe-low-fat-soy lattés trying to work out how well their keyboard will look in a glass case at the Smithsonian.

Most keyboards they make today look the same on the outside as they do under the hood. They consist of a large sheet of plastic. When a key is pressed, the plastic is pushed down and contact is made.

The Ducky is an n-key rollover keyboard. Each key is a separate mechanical switch. When you press a key, it has a very precise, crisp feel. Each key is mechanically designed to create tactile and audible feedback when it is pressed. Each key also “bounces” back once pressed.

It turns out (after some googling) that these sorts of keyboards are still made. They are high-cost keyboards (my keyboard cost US $100). Apparently, they have found a following with the gaming community. Their precise nature, and the fact that these keyboards do not “drop” keys when pressed, make them ideal for gaming zealots.
So why I am so impressed with this keyboard?

You really get the feeling that the Ducky is a “manly” keyboard. If you asked it to make you a double-decafe-low-fat-soy latté, it would probably slap you down and tell you “Man up – it’s Miller time!” This keyboard does, after all, weight in at 1.3Kg!
The precise nature of the key presses means that when you press an A, you get an A. (It’s almost like the keyboard says, “Ok, what’s next??” I LOVE this keyboard! It has rhythm! It has soul! It’s all business!

It makes beautiful music as you type. The faster and harder you type, the louder the click of the keys becomes and the faster they bounce back.
I know this must sound absolutely crazy… but it is truly an old-school thing. I imagine that most people just wouldn’t get it. Where’s my beer?

Hello… is this thing on?

Well it’s 10 years since I last updated my personal web site (well 5 years atleast) – with Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, etc – is there really need to have your own site OR more importantly who has time to keep all this up to date. (I must be getting old because weeks now seem to pass like days).

Well aside from the business history – I want to use this site to promote a couple other projects I am working on. DevCafe is a project which is to giving aspiring software developers in developing countries access to Internet and PCs. (more about this latter)