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WordPress site 101: Free and low-cost tools to build a powerful web presence

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We’ve been running a series of articles here on ZDNet about setting up and running websites. With so much change going on in the world, it’s more important than ever to have a compelling web presence.

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Also: How to build a website: What you need to get started

In this article, we’re going to look at all of the components that go into creating and maintaining an actively updated, mid-level website. What I mean by mid-level is that it’s not a one-page brochure site, but it’s also not a major site on the scale of ZDNet or CNET. We’re going to look at the content management system, the extensions and themes, the hosting provider, and the SaaS services that support the site.

By the time you finish reading, you’ll have a good  feel for what resources are used, so when it’s time to plan out your site, you’ll know what to look for.

Understanding the example site’s purpose

The site we’re going to discuss as an example is one of the WordPress-based sites I operate. Its purpose is to provide an online home for a few freemium software products I develop. The core products are open source, a donations add-on, and a privacy add-on for WordPress. Those core products are available for free on the WordPress.org plugin repository, which is essentially an app store for plugins.

My site provides more detailed product information than can be shown in the repository. It also provides an online store for users who want to buy add-ons for the free core products. Finally, it serves as a technical support hub for those who need help using both the free core products as well as the commercial add-ons.

One quick note: I’m not going to include the URL or name of my site here, because this isn’t about promoting my site. The actual site I run isn’t nearly as relevant from a site anatomy point of view as the resources and tools I use. So, I’ll just refer to it as “the site.”

I will, however, be mentioning and linking to the products and services I use. All of them are either free or I pay for them out of my own pocket. As with many products mentioned here, ZDNet may get a small commission, but none of that comes back to me.

If you’re curious about all the tools I use to develop WordPress plugins, here’s an article I posted last year:

Also: One developer’s favorite Mac coding tools for PHP and web development

How the site is structured

Logically, the site is structured into four major sections: products, support, lab notes, and about. There are also a few main pages like the home page and privacy policy.

Internally, WordPress has a few main data structures. The post type data structure handles long-form rich text. There’s a post metadata structure that handles data related to a post, like the date it was last edited and its publishing status. There’s also an options data type that handles key/value pairs on a site-wide basis, like the name of the site and email address for the site owner.

Post type is most interesting because it can be customized for a wide variety of purposes. The most basic is post, which is for blog posts that are posted sequentially over time. Another basic post type is page, which is for fixed specific-purpose pages, like the home page and the about page. Various plugins extend those post types for products, donations, affiliate programs, and more.

My site uses the following post types:

Pages: Pages include home, about, contact us, an affiliate registration page, the main support page, a user profile page (which also has purchase and help ticket history), a beta download page, and a few other supporting pages.

Posts: My site calls posts “Lab Notes,” because instead of blog entries about life, the universe, and everything, the blog posts on the site are really release notes and technical details about the products being supported.

Projects: The theme I’m using, Divi (more on that below) adds a custom post type called Projects. It’s meant to help users create items for portfolio websites, but I co-opted it to display each of my products as one project.

Downloads: Because the site sells digital downloads, the ecommerce plugin I use creates the post type Download for each sales entry. Each Download post includes pricing, licensing details, links to the digital file distributed on sale, and more.

Tables: I use a table-making plugin that stores its data in a Tables post type.

Affiliates: I use another plugin to manage affiliates, and that data is stored in the Affiliates post type.

So now that you know, roughly, how the site is organized, let’s get into the main components.


Primary site operations

We’ll kick off with the four main legs that support the entire site’s operations: WordPress, the ecommerce system, the hosting provider, and the theme. These are the elements that everything else has to integrate into or modify, so they need to be discussed first.

Digital goods ecommerce

edd.png

Image: Sandhills Development

I’m mentioning the ecommerce plugin before a lot of other items because so much of this site is built around this plugin.

EDD not only accepts money and releases files for download, but it manages payment gateways and product licensing and license codes. I have blocks of code embedded in each of my add-ons that call back to the site to validate the license keys for users’ installation. EDD also manages updates of those add-ons, so when I issue a new release, users can download updates right alongside other WordPress plugins they’ve installed.

View Now at Easy Digital Downloads

I’m using quite a few add-ons to EDD as well. They include the following licensed add-on plugins:

  • Software Licensing: Adds the software licensing system to Easy Digital Downloads
  • Recurring Payments; Lets me sell subscriptions
  • Advanced Reports: Provides tools to build custom reports for earnings, sales, and other data
  • Invoices: Lets customers display HTML-based invoices
  • PDF Invoices: For those who need to download invoices, this plugin creates PDF Invoices for each purchase available to both admins and customers
  • Mailchimp: Subscribes customers to my Mailchimp mailing list when they purchase products 
  • Manual Purchases: Provides an admin interface for manually creating purchase orders
  • Stripe Payment Gateway: Adds a payment gateway for Stripe.com

Each of the above add-ons is available for purchase separately or as part of a bundle. I bought the bundle and renew it each year.

Before we move on, I should mention that I chose EDD because it was one of a very few WordPress plugins that had the full range of features I wanted. There are a ton of ecommerce plugins on WordPress, including WooCommerce, the one owned by Automattic (the company that operates WordPress.com). But EDD had the best selection of features that matched my business model, and so that’s why I picked it — and then built everything else around that decision.

Managed WordPress hosting

pagely.png

Image: Pagely.com

When I first set up my site, I used a relatively inexpensive hosting service. I ran into all sorts of performance and compatibility problems with Easy Digital Downloads. I moved the site around to a few other cheaper hosts and then decided to wise up.

I contacted the EDD folks and asked them which hosting provider they used. They sold EDD and its add-ons using EDD, and since my freemium model was similar to theirs, I decided that whatever host was good enough for them would be good enough for me.

They introduced me to their provider, Pagely, a premium managed hosting provider. The cost was more than I really wanted to spend, but I wanted the level of support and reliability Pagely promised. I haven’t regretted the decision in the five or so years I’ve used them.

View Now at Pagely

Page-builder theme

divi.png

Image: Elegant Themes

The next big structural element in the site is the theme. For some sites, the theme itself provides the look of the site. If you want a site that sells software products, for example, you’d buy a software sales theme. If you wanted to post your art portfolio, you’d buy a portfolio theme.

Somewhere in the mid-2010s, the theme-as-page-builder approach became popular on WordPress. The idea is that the theme became an entire framework for look and feel, and you’d construct the entire site inside this framework. Some themes, like Divi, offer pre-designed styles and themes, so you don’t have to do all the look and feel yourself.

One additional benefit of this genre of themes is that some allow for front-end editing, so you can make changes in the site right where the change will be shown, rather than editing in the backend dashboard.

View Now at Elegant Themes

Divi provides the bulk of the look and feel of the site, but I use a wide range of little support plugins to tweak the look. But they’re not nearly as central to the site’s operations, so I’ll come back to them later. Next up is the support system that lets me provide tech support to all my users.


Tech support management

When I first adopted the plugins I support, I had no idea tech support would be such an ongoing challenge. I fully expected all site operators to be reasonably sophisticated IT folks, people who were fully familiar with setting up and managing things like a CMS. I was completely wrong.

Instead of experienced techies who were setting up their first nonprofit sites, I wound up encountering nonprofit operators with barely any experience in tech setting up their first WordPress sites. Tech support was a far bigger deal than I ever expected.

Unlike many WordPress plugin authors with free and freemium plugins, I support the free users just as much as I support those who pay for add-ons. I feel that the free users provide me just as much information about plugin performance and behavior, and they’re more a product and quality analysis asset to me than they are a drain on my time.

I had a very rough start but I eventually realized that getting to talk to these folks was a privilege, especially as a tech columnist who otherwise rarely spoke to the typical end-user. I developed a much better understanding of their needs.

The WordPress plugin repository provides a support forum for every plugin listed. I quickly discovered that the forums just didn’t work for me. The biggest issue was that I was working with nonprofits and folks interested in privacy and the forums were public. They couldn’t post screenshots and confidential information without all that being public.

I found a WordPress-based plugin that ran a support ticket system within my main WordPress site, and I used that for about four years. But I kept having problems with it, and ironically for a support ticket system, their support was abysmal. I later found out that the plugin had changed hands multiple times and it was pretty much languishing out there unloved.

So, I bit the bullet earlier this year and went with a well-respected, mainstream cloud-based SaaS support service…

Support conversations and tickets in the cloud

help-scout.png

Image: Help Scout

Help Scout does most of its support via email. Users come to my site and open a ticket, and then the rest of the conversation occurs in their email inbox. I did a survey of other prominent WordPress commercial plugins and theme sellers and most of them recommended Help Scout, so that’s what I chose.

So far, it’s pretty good. My only complaint is that because it’s email-based, I can’t always attach zip files to tickets. Some email systems don’t accept incoming zip files. So now, I also have to use Dropbox to host zip files I want to share, and then I just include a Dropbox link into the support ticket.

Beyond that, though, Help Scout has been pretty much problem-free. It allows me to automatically set up workflows. One that I like a lot is an automatic script that runs thirty days after a ticket was last touched, which closes the ticket and then sends a note to the user letting them know the ticket has been closed, but they’re welcome to reopen it.

View Now at Help Scout

Integrates Help Scout into a WordPress site

helpscoutdesk.png

Image: Sprout Apps

The only problem with Help Scout is that it has very limited integration with WordPress. I wanted users to be able to initiate tickets (and as part of that, answer questions about what product they were using, what version, who their hosting provider was, and more). I also wanted them to be able to come back to their profile page on my site and see all their open and historical tickets.

The Pro version of a relatively obscure WordPress plugin called Help Scout Desk does just this. Most of the folks who recommended Help Scout had no idea this resource was available. I had to write a few PHP scripts to customize the data gathering, but all that worked nicely in context with Help Scout Desk. By combining Help Scout with Help Scout Desk, I got the user experience I wanted for my support system. It was a nice little discovery that became a total win.

View Now at Sprout Apps


Mailing list management

Unlike most site operators, I don’t use my email mailing list primarily as a marketing tool. I use it to let users know about critical updates and changes to the plugins. Yes, I’ve done a few updates telling folks that there’s a new add-on available, but because so many nonprofits rely on my software, it’s much more important to be able to tell them when something (like how payment gateways process payments) is going to be changing.

Unfortunately, only about 10% of my users subscribe to the mailing list. As a result, after a big change, I still get a raft of tech support requests that cover the exact topic I’d previously explained in my update mailings. To be fair, 10% is actually higher than normal participation percentage, but I still wish it could be better. That said, I use a number of tools for managing emails and capturing subscribers.

Mailing list management

mailchimp.png

Image: Mailchimp

Mailchimp manages my email outreach. They maintain the list of email addresses and do the bulk mailing when I wish to reach users. For this, I pay them a monthly fee. Mailchimp does have a free tier, but I found I had too many email subscribers to remain eligible for the free tier (and, ironically, not enough email subscribers to reduce my tech support ticket load).

Mailchimp also provides a UI for composing mailings, and a wide variety of campaign tracking tools, most of which I haven’t needed to use. The service also had an opt-in confirmation feature I enabled. That way, if one of the plugins mentioned below adds a user to the mailing list, that user has to proactively grant permission before mail is sent to the user’s email address.

View Now at Mailchimp

As with Help Scout, the Mailchimp SaaS service doesn’t automatically integrate with WordPress. Instead, I use a number of different plugins to enable that integration. They include:

  • EDD Mailchimp: Mentioned above, part of the shopping cart software. Automatically (with confirmation, of course) subscribes customers to my Mailchimp list when they purchase products 
  • Bloom: This came with my Divi license and it presents a pop-up email subscribe box when users scroll 30% or more down a webpage, or when they linger on a webpage for a few minutes or more.
  • Divi block: DIvi has an email subscribe block that I’ve placed at the bottom and side of relevant pages to encourage users to subscribe.
  • MC4WP: Mailchimp User Sync: This synchronizes my user list with Mailchimp. That way, when someone creates a tech support ticket, they get added (subject to opt-in confirmation) to the mailing list. This plugin requires MC4WP: Mailchimp for WordPress, which, like Bloom, adds sign-up features. I’ve disabled all the sign-up features and use it simply to drive the user sync capability.

Marketing support

I don’t do a whole lot of marketing beyond the listings of plugins on the WordPress plugin repository and some occasional social media promotion, but I do use a few plugins on the site to encourage some marketing activities. Let’s take a look.

Social media follow and sharing

monarch.png

Image: Elegant Themes

Monarch is another plugin from the Elegant Themes folks (who make Divi). This plugin creates a series of social sharing and social following buttons on the site. Social sharing buttons are like the buttons at the top of this page — they let users easily post the current page or post to their own social feeds. Social following are buttons that users can press that subscribe them to your social networks as a follower. 

Except for Facebook. Facebook doesn’t allow tools like this for personal Facebook pages, but if you do have a Facebook business page, you can use it.

View Now at Elegant Themes

Manage affiliate partners

affiliatewp.png

Image: Sandhills Development

My latest addition to the site is AffiliateWP, a plugin that integrates with my ecommerce system and manages affiliate partners. Those who wish to promote the add-ons can sign up, and when they send a buyer to my site, they would get a commission.

AffiliateWP cost a little over $200 for this year, and so far it’s on track to pay for itself… never. I’ve had it installed for a few months, managed to sign up one partner, and haven’t had a single sale referred over. This isn’t the fault of AffiliateWP, because I don’t have the time to cold call possible partner sites and pitch the affiliate plan. If you do have a team that can do this sort of promotion, you’ll probably do better. In that case, AffiliateWP, in concert with Easy Digital Downloads, might be a viable solution.

View Now at AffiliateWP


Additional tools for managing look and feel

In addition to the Divi theme, I use quite a few plugins to tweak certain aspects of how the site looks to visitors. Here’s the list:

  • Crayon Syntax Highlighter: This plugin hasn’t been updated for a while, but still works for me. It creates a text field that highlights code syntax appropriately for the language presented. I have an API built into my donations plugin, and this allows me to postcode that presents syntax highlighting automatically.
  • Divi Bars: This allows me to create a highlight bar at the top of my site. I often do this to spotlight key version changes or updates people need to know about.
  • Hide Admin Bar from Non-Admins: Normally, in WordPress, when a user logs in, a black admin bar is presented on the top of the page. Since my users are only support users or buyers, there’s no reason for them to see that admin bar when they’re on the site. This little plugin makes the bar go away.
  • TablePress: This is one of my favorite plugins. Making HTML tables is always a pain, and even if your theme supports tables, they’re still a pain. TablePress is a complete system for editing, managing, and presenting tables. I use this for feature comparisons and lists of API calls. Can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • Theme My Login: TML is a plugin that allows you to change how the login page looks. I didn’t want users to have to go to a special page for logging in. I wanted to present it as part of the support pages. TML allows this to happen. Theme My Login also has a number of add-ons. I’ll show you the ones I use below, in the security section.

Additional tools for managing security

The single most important way you can protect a WordPress site is by updating the WordPress core, plugins, and themes when updates are made available. Almost all WordPress penetrations come due to an exploit in older code. So if you keep your site up-to-date, you’ll also help keep it secure. Here are some of the tools I use, beyond updates, to help me keep the site safe:

  • Backups: There are many backup plugins, but my hosting provider does daily backups for me.
  • ManageWP: This is a great tool, owned by GoDaddy. I use it primarily to update all my sites. Going through 12 sites and hand-updating them can be incredibly tedious. Instead, I just log into ManageWP and it does it all on one shot. It also has a variety of other tools that help manage sites and keep them safe. Worth a look.
  • BBQ Firewall: This plugin adds additional firewall protection to the site beyond the hardware firewall provided by the host. This tool protects against SQL injection attacks, executable file uploads, directory traversal attacks, unsafe character requests, excessively long requests, PHP remote/file execution, XSS, XXE, and related attacks, and bad bots, bad referrers, and a wide range of other bad requests.
  • Stop Spammers; My biggest problem with this site (and others I’ve operated over the years) are spammers who try to blast spam and other content through the site. This plugin helps reduce the level of spam. All-powerful, it’s not. But it’s part of my belt-and-suspenders approach to spam management.
  • Theme My Login 2FA: Allows me to require 2-factor authentication to admin users, but allows support users to login without 2FA (but they can enable it individually if they want to).
  • Theme My Login Moderation: Require users to confirm their email address or be manually approved. This is another part of my anti-spam system.
  • Theme My Login reCAPTCHA: Enables Google reCAPTCHA support on my registration and login forms. Yet another piece of my anti-spam puzzle.
  • User Role Editor: Many of the plugins I use to create specific user roles. This tool allows me to manage those roles and control the privileges each role is assigned.

Additional tools for site management

Finally, I use several plugins that tweak the site, help me manage it better, or add convenience in maintaining the site. Let’s look at those now:

  • Admin Menu Editor: This lets you tweak the main WordPress admin menu, so if you want to move items around or bring more commonly used sections closer to the top, you can. 
  • Better Search and Replace: This is by Delicious Brains, one of the smartest makers of plugins for the WordPress community. It allows you to search and replace the WordPress database and make changes. You shouldn’t use it often, but when you need it, you really need it.
  • Display PHP Version: This is such a simple little thing, but it’s nice to be able to quickly ascertain the version of PHP the site is running. This does that.
  • Easy WP SMTP: When WordPress wants to send an email, it has to deal with a wide range of hosting environments and variables. This plugin helps cut through that and makes sending emails (like for password resets) much easier and more reliable. I use it primarily for new user registrations, password resets, and to send purchasers their license code information. I use Mailchimp for mailings in volume.
  • Enable Media Replace: The default interface for images in WordPress requires you to delete an old image before uploading a replacement. This saves time by allowing you to simply replace one image with another. It’s another simple, but time-saving tweak.
  • Simple Page Ordering: This is another reordering tool, this time for pages in the Pages section of the admin menu. It allows you to move more commonly modified pages to the top. Yet another time-saver.
  • User Switching: This is an enormously helpful plugin for sites with different user roles. It allows you to switch to another user on the fly so you can see how the site is presented from that user level, make sure the right elements are hidden and other elements are showing. I used this a lot when setting up Help Scout to make sure users could get to their support tickets.
  • Widget Clone: Here’s another time-saver. This one allows you to duplicate a widget (a type of WordPress UI element used a lot on sites). Some widgets are pretty complex and this saves having to reproduce all the settings.
  • WPCrontrol: WordPress has its own cron (automatic code execution) system. Normally what runs is pretty opaque to site operators, but if you have this plugin you can not only see what’s scheduled to run but modify the cron as well.
  • Yoast Duplicate Post: Like Widget clone, but for posts and pages. It simply duplicates everything in a post or a page and lets you modify it later. It works well for pages and posts, but when I used it to duplicate a product listing, I kind of fell down a rabbit hole (which the EDD support folks thankfully dug me out of). Don’t use it to duplicate product post types.

In addition to these tools, I also wrote three custom plugins that run the site. One creates a bunch of useful custom shortcodes I use on the site, one gathers and manages telemetry data from my users, and the last one contains lots of little site tweaks, like the setup code for the help desk software.

Congratulations

Well, if you made it this far, congratulations! As you can see, an active website has a lot of components that all have to work together. Just keep in mind that I’ve been running this site for about seven years. It didn’t burst onto the web with all these capabilities and components. I work on the site a few times each year, improving it over time. If you set up a site and run it for a few years, your site will become more capable and reliable over time as well.

What about you? Are you running a WordPress site? What are some of your favorite plugins, themes, and features? What are some of the problems you’re trying to solve or some of the lessons you’ve learned? Share with us in the comments below.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/anatomy-of-a-wordpress-site/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

ZDNET

Best telepresence robot 2021

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How can remote workers make their presence known in their organization? How can enterprises overcome the limitations of video conferencing and enable a level of communication and collaboration that approaches on-site interaction?

Telepresence robots have been on the scene for the better part of a decade, though as global upheavals reshape work and reorient attitudes toward remote participation, the technology may finally be primed to break out of its niche user base and go mainstream. The timing is fortuitous: The market is now mature enough that consumers have choices when it comes to feature set and price point. As companies downsize physical locations and revamp their policies toward distributed workforces, telepresence offers both technological benefits and collaboration advantages that will appeal to some employers and workers alike.

The current telepresence lineup reflects the range of use cases and intended end-users out there, including a handful of models designed for specific fields and workflows, as well as others that fit organizations of any size. They were chosen based on a wide survey of this growing product category and by speaking with company representatives and end-users about their experience.

These are our picks for the best telepresence robots out there right now. 

Best budget telepresence

ohmni-supercam-black.jpg

In the battle for low-cost, truly robotic telepresence, OhmniLabs has been giving rival Double a major run for its money. 

At under $2699, the Ohmni Robot weighs just 20 pounds and folds up, meaning you can take it anywhere, but still manages all the functionality you need in a telepresence robot. It features wide-angle, low-latency streaming at HD+ resolution and real-time full-resolution zoom to read whiteboards or see fine details at full UHD 4K detail.

A secondary dedicated wide-angle navigation camera lets you see around the base of Ohmni while you’re driving, which you can do remotely from just about any standard device. The unit features a bright 10.1-inch screen and integrated Jabra speakerphone for great audio. It doesn’t have automatic rising and lowering like Double, but the robot can move its head side to side for natural interactions.

OhmniLabs is also thoughtful about who might use the device, which has dual-band Wi-Fi radio with full 2.4GHz + 5GHz support and optimized background scanning and roaming for large spaces. Full 802.1x support means it should be simple to run on business or school networks.

$2,699 at Ohmni labs

Best bang for your buck

double-3.jpg

Where the Double 2 used a tablet display, Double 3 replaces the iPad with a fully integrated solution using an Nvidia Jetson TX2 GPU, two Intel RealSense depth sensors, two high-resolution cameras, and a beamforming microphone array. In place of the iPad is an integrated screen and new feature sets, including AR overlays, that really step up the functionality and feature set game of the Double.

Some of those features include a new click-to-drive interface, obstacle avoidance, and pan/tilt/zoom video, all of which contribute to a fully immersive remote experience that’s still intuitive to use. Perhaps the biggest functionality upgrade is the addition of mixed reality overlays. 

In Double’s version of mixed reality, virtual 3D objects are added into the video stream to appear as if they’re in the real world. Virtual objects include helpful waypoints to make the video feed more informative during navigation. 

The Double 3 with charging dock runs $3,999. If you already have a Double 2, you can upgrade your current device with a Double 3 head for $1,999.

$3,999 at B&H

Best telepresence for high-end corporate settings and hospitality

ava-robotics.jpg

With the Ava Telepresence robot, remote users easily and safely navigate through large workspaces, event spaces, and retail spaces with an enterprise-grade video conferencing system designed to make interacting with people on-site feel natural.

Unlike lower-priced models, the robot features intelligent, autonomous navigation. Remote users simply specify a destination, and Ava automatically moves to the desired location while avoiding obstacles. The technology is slick: The robot utilizes advanced mapping to learn the local environment and create a realistic map of the area, which enables it to navigate at the push of a button. Obstacle avoidance we’re used to seeing on autonomous mobile robots in fields like logistics and fulfillment enables Ava to navigate around people and avoid tumbles down the stairs.

Perhaps Ava’s biggest selling point is its form factor. This is one sleek unit, making it ideal for applications in client-facing offices and sectors like hospitality. 

It’s also secure. Embedded enterprise-grade security (including encryption, secure HTTPS management, password protection) means Ava is well suited to a corporate IT infrastructure.

View Now at Ava Robotics

Best desktop video conferencing

meeting-owl-pro.jpg

Meeting Owl is a 360-degree video and audio conferencing system that automatically focuses on the people speaking in the room. It doesn’t move, so it’s not a robot by most definitions, but its autonomous functionality makes it an excellent and highly affordable tabletop system for individuals and teams that routinely conference and collaborate remotely.

Eleven-inches tall, Meeting Owl uses an eight microphone array to pick up sound and lock in on the person speaking. Remote viewers on the other end get a panoramic view of all the meeting attendants and a close-up view of the current speaker.

The system comes in original and Pro versions. The Pro version improves on the Meeting Owl’s 720p picture and increases audio pickup range from 12 feet to 18 feet, which is especially useful for larger teams or any collaboration utilizing a whiteboard. 

The system integrates with all the major video conferencing services so usability is a snap. The Pro version goes for $999.

$999 at B&H

Best telepresence for education

kubi-telepresence-robots-0.jpg

Kubi is an inexpensive ($600) robotic docking cradle for tablets that augments the teleconferencing experience you’re used to with the addition of movement. 

During video conferencing, the remote participant can steer the cradle to look around a room. “Kubi” means “neck” in Japanese.

That makes it a particularly useful device for team environments where one participant is remote. The remote worker sits at a laptop or desktop but is able to look around the room to engage with speakers, which the device’s developers say enhances the interactive experience. 

An enhanced audio kit and a secure docking retrofit to keep tablets secured to the base make them good options for educational environments where learners have to beam into larger classroom settings and engage in conversations but won’t necessarily have to move around the classroom. 

$600 at Kubi

Best telepresence for conferences and large events

beam.png

Anyone in tech or a tech-adjacent industry will be familiar with the sight of telepresence robots roving around conference room floors as virtual attendants beam in remotely.

Beam is comfortable in offices and is used by some of the biggest companies in the world, but this robot from Suitable Technologies really shines in conference settings, where it’s nimble enough to bounce from keynotes to breakouts to hallway banter.

Beam has four wheels (the pro version has five for increased stability and maneuverability) and wide-angle navigation cameras. The entire ecosystem was built in-house, which means participants must use Beam’s app. 

The advantage is security, which is best in class. Using industry-standard technology such as TLS/SSL, AES-256, and HMAC-SHA1, Beam encrypts all communication that travels through our system to ensure your calls remain private and secure.

View Now at Beam

Best telemedicine device for healthcare

vgo-single-small-400x400.png

VGo’s parent, Vecna, knows the healthcare sector, so it makes sense that the company has developed a telepresence robot that enables healthcare providers to deliver lower-cost services and improved quality of care virtually. 

Telemedicine is certainly having a moment as providers figure out ways of reducing in-person visits, but the robot has also been used to enable homebound students to go to school virtually. 

Using the VGo application on a PC or Mac, an internet-connected person located anywhere connects to a VGo in a distant facility. VGo can be shared by a set of people or dedicated to a single person using standard web accounts and permission settings maintained by the admin.

VGo is lightweight, contributing to its excellent battery life, which is best in class at 12 hours. That makes it ideal for clinical environments and hospitals.

View Now at VGo

Advocating for telepresence 

Offices are coming around to telepresence solutions for remote workers, and the recent health crisis has put the transition to distributed workforces into hyperdrive. Teachers and school administrators are now also embracing remote learning, which, in the short term, can quell infection rates — but, in the longterm, may be a way to maximize limited resources while bringing needed services to students.

Markets and Markets estimated the overall telepresence market will be over $300 million by 2023. However, that market research doesn’t take into account the rapid adoption of remote work due to COVID-19 or the expected long-term effects of the global stay-at-home experiment on attitudes toward remote working. Pivoting out of the pandemic, many companies may embrace a partially distributed workforce, which is a huge opportunity for developers of telepresence and video conferencing systems.

For workers, employers, and IT pros who wish to advocate for telepresence systems, the most important strategy is to tout the collaborative benefits of the technology and to have a plan for implementation. Robots in the workforce carry a longstanding stigma. Coupled with lingering resistance to remote work situations, existing biases on the part of employers or employees could stop the proposed adoption of telepresence dead in its tracks. 

But advocating for telepresence as a way of maximizing collaboration and approximating the productive magic that happens in unstructured interactions in hallways and face-to-face chats can help mitigate concerns. As can explaining that most telepresence systems are ready-to-go out of the box with intuitive user interfaces. The technology is carefully designed not to need extensive training to use. After all, most humans don’t need training to have natural interactions in person.

What to look for in evaluating telepresence robots

The biggest questions to ask are who might use a telepresence solution and in what settings. If you’re just looking to enhance video conferencing without spending big bucks or implementing new processes and protocols, solutions like Meeting Owl or Kubi would be the best places to start.

However, for those willing to embrace the dynamic features offered by a mobile robot, consider whether your environment is client-facing. A slick robot like Ava makes a great impression, although it comes at a price. 

For most SMBs, models from Double or Ohmni are likely to be smart bets. They’re relatively inexpensive and provide a seamless user interface. A company can get by with one shared robot to start and easily scale up to meet needs.

After all, once one remote employee gets a robot doppelgänger, it’s likely others will want them as well.

Other options to consider

The goal of telepresence is to seamlessly integrate remote workers into physical locations. But, in 2021, with work totally transformed and record numbers of workers staying remote for the foreseeable future, that use case may have less urgency for office workers. (The use case for telepresence designed for medical professionals, however, has never been clearer.)

If all of your colleagues are remote, as well, there’s not much call for a robot that can roam the halls. If you’re stuck at home and suffering from epic levels of Zoom fatigue, I’ve had excellent luck with Facebook Portal, which integrates video conferencing with all the functionality of an Alexa-powered home assistant. It’s not technically a robot, but it does bridge the gap between the standard webcam and the fancier telepresence robots on this list. For the time being, and at least until more workers migrate back to offices, this is a very solution for seamless video conferences from home.

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Best cyber insurance 2021

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Cyber insurance is quickly becoming a must-have amid cybercrime, ransomware, and daily threats. The problem is that wading through insurers is a bit daunting. With that in mind, I went shopping. 

For large enterprises, cyber policies are increasing the cost of doing business. Large firms such as Equifax, Marriott, and SolarWinds all had coverage to cushion the hit from high-profile data breaches. Smaller enterprises may not have the coverage.

Also: What is cyber insurance? Everything you need to know | Cyber insurance roundtable: Why cyber insurance has a supply issue

I have a few working theories about the cyber insurance market.

  • This year — 2021 — will be the year that cyber insurance evolves significantly. It’s possible that cyber insurance will be required for businesses much like home and auto.
  • The market is dominated by massive insurers targeting large enterprises, but there will be segments of the marketing targeting mid-sized and smaller businesses.
  • Cyber insurance could be part of a cloud services stack. For instance, Google Cloud’s partnership with Munich Re and Allianz is a start, but cyber insurance could be resold by cloud providers, web hosting, and other parts of the business technology stack.
  • While cyber insurance may become part of a tech bundle or at least easier to acquire, there will be multiple players gunning for policies in a fragmented market. Reportlinker projects that cyber insurance will be a $70.6 billion global market in 2030, up $5.6 billion in 2019.

In any case, cyber insurance scouting needs to commence for businesses. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the top 20 cyber insurance providers accounted for 92% of the market in the US.

Features risk mitigation tools

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According to NAIC, AXA is the cyber insurance market share leader based on standalone policies. AXA’s cyber insurance covers North America and writes policies for data breach response and crisis management, privacy and security liability, business interruption, data recovery, cyber extortion and ransomware, and PCI among others.

AXA also provides risk mitigation resources via partners and an online service called CyberRiskConnect. Here’s a sample policy

View Now at Axa cyber insurance

Three flavors of cyber insurance

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AIG’s cyber insurance can be standalone or added to an existing policy as an endorsement. AIG also offers three cyber insurance products.

  • CyberEdge, which covers the financial costs due to a breach as well as first-party costs.
  • CyberEdge Plus to cover physical world losses caused by a cyber event including business interruption and property damages.
  • CyberEdge PC, which can be added to traditional property and casualty policies.

AIG also offers threat scoring and analytics as well as tools to prevent attacks. AIG has a network of vendors to restore and recover, too.

View Now at AIG cyber insurance

Next-gen cyber insurance provider

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Cowbell Cyber aims to automate data collection with its cloud platform, provide observability and monitoring, and then combine it with risk scoring, actuarial science, and underwriting. The company recently raised $20 million in venture funding

The company’s portfolio includes cybersecurity awareness training, continuous risk assessment, and pre- and post-breach risk improvement services. Cowbell Cyber also has a free risk assessment service called Cowbell Factors, which adds a freemium element to selling cyber policies. 

View Now at Cowbell Cyber

AI and data science can simplify cyber insurance

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Corvus has a host of business insurance products but has a bevy of first-party cyber insurance offerings for business interruption, system failure, cyber extortion and ransomware, and breach response and remediation to name a few.

The company, which recently raised $100 million in venture funding, uses a broker-focused approach to use AI to analyze data to predict and prevent loss. The data Corvus brings together helps policyholders, underwriters, brokers, and reinsurers address market requirements. Phil Edmundson, CEO of Corvus, said that artificial intelligence and data science can simplify the cyber insurance workflow. “If you try to read a cyber policy even knowledgeable people would find it challenging,” he said.

View Now at Corvus

Options for SMBs too

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Travelers takes a broader approach to cyber insurance, with plans designed to mitigate risks for companies of all sizes. The insurer has cyber insurance plans for technology companies, public entities, and SMBs.

The company bundles pre- and post-breach services provided by Symantec and a hub to evaluate risks. 

Travelers policies fall into these categories:

View Now at Travelers cyber insurance

Big in cyber insurance

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Compared to the big insurers, Beazley isn’t a household name, but NAIC rates the firm No. 4 with 11.2% market share just behind Travelers.

Beazley’s headliner is Beazley Breach Response, which is a customized policy based on a company’s situation. Beazley claims to be the “world’s best designed cyber insurance solution.” Beazley also covers breach response services for up to five million people. 

For companies in specific industries, Beazley looks like an option. Beazley counts healthcare, higher education, hospitality, financial services, and retail as target industries. 

View Now at Beazley cyber insurance

Partnership with Google Cloud

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Allianz provides cyber insurance on a standalone basis but is now partnered with Google Cloud along with Munich Re under a program called Cloud Protection +. The pairing is likely to move Allianz as well as partner Munich Re up the cyber insurance rankings. 

View Now at Allianz cyber insurance

Targeting the mid-market companies

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While the big-name insurers are going after the large enterprises, midmarket companies may gravitate toward a specialist. Midmarket companies often have their own tech providers since they are often ignored by large enterprise vendors.

Cyber insurance companies may also shortchange the midmarket. Resilience offers cyber insurance with a few interesting perks. First, it combines insurance and expertise like the large players. And, second, Resilience includes a program where customers can earn credit to put toward security services and products.

View Now at Resilience cyber insurance

Specializes in small businesses

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Hiscox specializes in cyber insurance for small businesses. The firm is also spending heavily on marketing but is worth a look. The company offers a training academy to shore up small business defenses, or what it calls the “human firewall.”

According to Hiscox, its cyber insurance covers lost business revenue and data recovery costs, money lost to phishing, defense against fines and privacy lawsuits, and breach response. The Hiscox policies also include digital media upgrades. It doesn’t cover criminal action, fund transfer, infrastructure interruption, and prior acts of knowledge.

View Now at Hiscox cyber insurance

More notable providers

There is a bevy of other providers — and many insurers offer cyber insurance as part of a broader package of business offerings. Among those that looked interesting:

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Google Cloud hires SAP alum Kazmaier, unifies database, data analytics, Looker units

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Google Cloud named former SAP executive Gerrit Kazmaier general manager for Databases, Data Analytics and Looker in a move that consolidates data units.

Kazmaier, who starts on Monday, will report to Urs Hölzle, senior vice president of technical infrastructure and Google Fellow at Google. Andi Gutmans, vice president of engineering for databases at Google, Debanjan Saha, general manager of data analytics, and Ronaldo Ama, general manager of Looker, will all report to Kazmaier.

Google Cloud has been building out its industry expertise with hires from enterprise software giants such as SAP and Oracle. 

Most recently, Kazmaier was President of SAP HANA & Analytics and led SAP’s global product, solution and engineering teams for database, data warehousing and analytics.

Kazmaier also was vice president of SAP Analytics Cloud. At SAP, Kazmaier focused on enabling customers to share and utilize data across enterprises.

On February 1, Kazmaier said he was leaving SAP via a post on LinkedIn. “The questions: “how will this help our customers?” and “how will this help the people working in this organization?” are guiding stars for me,” said Kazmaier, who thanked SAP and said he was going to pursue a new career opportunity. 

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/google-cloud-hires-sap-alum-kazmaier-unifies-database-data-analytics-looker-units/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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Best iPad accessories in 2021: The best dock, hub, and more for your USB-C iPad

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For some, Apple’s iPad is more than just a tablet. It’s a computer. With the addition of trackpad support in early 2020, and the rollout of the Magic Keyboard with Trackpad for the iPad Pro lineup and the fourth-generation iPad Air, the iPad lineup has never looked or worked more like a laptop. 

However, with only a single port on the Pro and Air, connecting multiple accessories to the tablet can be a chore. For example, if you’re using the iPad with a USB keyboard, you have to disconnect the keyboard if you want to transfer some files to an external SSD. 

Both iPad Pro models, as well as the fourth-generation iPad Air, have a USB-C port that makes the tablets compatible with most, if not all, USB-C docks and hubs.

There are several docks and hubs that make connecting multiple devices and accessories, including external monitors, to the iPad a breeze. Below you’ll find a mix of devices from various companies at a wide range of price points that I’ve personally tested with the 2018 iPad Pro. 

I specifically picked devices that would appeal to all types of iPad users, ranging from someone who just wants a couple of extra ports to someone who wants a dedicated workstation.

Low-cost solution with a number of ports

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Anker

Anker’s USB-C 7-in-1 hub is the most affordable option of the group, but don’t discount its capabilities. As is often the case with hubs, the name includes the number of ports that it has. 

More specifically, this Anker hub has 2 x USB-A ports, 1 x USB-C port with Power Delivery at up to 85W for charging your iPad or laptop, 1 x USB-C data port, 1 x HDMI port, 1 x microSD card slot, and 1 x standard SD card slot.

The HDMI port supports a single 4K display with a refresh rate of 30Hz, and the USB ports (both A and C) support up to 5Gbps transfer speeds for transferring files. 

The Anker 7-in-1 is a low-cost solution that lacks support for faster display refresh rates, or other notable connections like audio or Ethernet. However, it does a fantastic job at giving your iPad extra ports.

$28 at Amazon

Paying a premium for an Apple product

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Apple

Apple’s own USB-C adapter was originally released for MacBooks, but it also works with the company’s iPad Pro and Air tablet lineup. You’re paying a premium for an Apple product, however. There are only three ports on the AV Multiport Adapter: HDMI, USB-A, and USB-C.

The USB-A port works with external hard drives or accessories, while the USB-C port only acts as a power pass-through for charging your iPad (or MacBook). The HDMI port supports up to 4K at 60Hz for all iPad models and a limited selection of MacBook models.

I included Apple’s hub in the list simply because, if you’ve owned a MacBook after Apple switched to USB-C, odds are you also have one of these adapters. I wanted to highlight that it does indeed work with the iPad Pro or Air and does a good job at providing minimal connections.

It’s expensive for what it offers, but that’s usually the case with Apple accessories (and some products.)

$69 at Apple

Connect random accessories and devices to your iPad

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CalDigit

For $10 more than Apple’s adapter, you can get the CalDigit USB-C Soho Dock. With a total of eight ports, you can connect random accessories and devices to your iPad without having to figure out what to unplug.

The total list of ports includes 1 x USB-C (10Gb/s) that connects the dock to your iPad. There’s another USB-C port next to a standard USB port, both of which offer 10Gb/s speeds, a full-size SD card port, and a microSD card port. When it comes to external displays, you have an HDMI port and a DisplayPort with 4K@60Hz with HDR support. Next to the display connections is another USB-C port that only serves as a 100W PD receptacle to power all of your USB devices and charge the tablet or computer attached to the dock.

Instead of lengthy housing, the Soho has a rectangular design with ports on three of four sides. It’s a unique design since most hubs (like the aforementioned Anker) have a similar design.

At $80, the Soho isn’t overpriced and offers a wide range of connections and speeds. 

$79 at Amazon

Near the high-end of the docks

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Hyper

The HyperDrive Power 9-in-1 hub is near the high-end of the docks I cover here, but for good reason. With nine total ports and a lengthy USB-C cable that connects to the iPad, there’s not a lot you can’t connect to or do with the HyperDrive.

The ports include 1 x Gigabit Ethernet, 1 x 4K@30Hz, 1 x microSD, 1 x SD card reader, 3 x USB-A (5Gbps), 1 x USB-C PD at 60W, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The headphone jack may be confusing at first glance, and I’ll admit even I was perplexed by it. Then I remember that, whenever you’re using a dock or hub with the iPad, it automatically routes all audio through the HDMI connection. By connecting a speaker or a pair of headphones to the audio jack on the Power hub, you’re able to listen to system sounds or music.

For someone who needs more than one or two USB ports, and prefers a hardwired Ethernet connection, the HyperDrive Power is where it’s at. 

$99 at Amazon

Pro-level accessory that combines several products

StudioDock.jpg

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

By far the most expensive dock of the bunch, the Kensington Studio Dock is also the most capable. Pricing starts at $379 for the 11-inch iPad Pro/4th Gen. iPad Air version. It costs $399 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro version. 

I wrote a more thorough review of the Studio Dock you can read here, but I’ll run down the features. At the base of the stand are two Qi charging pads, one for your iPhone the other for your AirPods (or any other Qi-compatible device). There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, an SD card reader, a gigabit Ethernet port, 3 x USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI 4K@60Hz port, and a USB-C port with 18W throughput. 

Above the ports is where you dock the iPad into the stand, with magnets and a USB-C adapter holding it in place and powering your iPad at the same time. The stand rotates your iPad’s screen, making it easy to trigger Face ID or adjust it whenever you need to use an Apple Pencil to write or draw on the screen. 

The StudioDock is a pro-level accessory that combines several different products into one device.

$379 at Kensington

Mimic a desktop feel

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TwelveSouth

While the HoverBar Duo isn’t a hub, it lends itself to being included in this list because it provides a way to use the iPad in a way that mimics a desktop feel. 

I’ve used the HoverBar Duo with my 12.9-inch iPad Pro and all of the hubs discussed here — outside of the StudioDock because it’s not possible. Effectively, you could combine the HoverBar Duo with the HyperDrive Power and you’d have a similar amount of ports and setup as the StudioDock for about half the price.

$79 at Amazon

Our process

I spent the last three months using all of these hubs and docks with a 2018 iPad Pro. Using each dock or hub for several days, I would test the ports, connections, and reliability of the accessory during my time using it. 

At times, my iPad would be connected to an external display. Other times, the hub would only serve as a means to connect external storage and accessories to the tablet, without a display attached. 

How to choose

The type of hub you want or need for your iPad will depend on your budget and how you use the tablet. Something like the Studio Dock is clearly for someone who uses the iPad as a computer replacement and doesn’t mind paying a lot for it. It’s easily the most versatile gadget out of the group. 

Whereas the Anker hub is for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot on a hub and doesn’t mind if it doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles as the rest of the hubs covered. 

My favorite picks go between the HyperDrive Power 9 and the StudioDock, but I do most of my work on an iPad. The Soho Dock is something I’ve found myself using with a MacBook Pro and my iPad Pro, because of the DisplayPort and HDMI connections on the back.

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Source: https://www.zdnet.com/article/best-ipad-accessories/#ftag=RSSbaffb68

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