Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The times they are a-changin'

I'm pleased to announce that I'm changing jobs to work in a new department being formed at British Telecom, starting on 23 July. I'm sad to be leaving LBi, which has been a huge amount of fun, but the time is right for a new challenge.

My good friend and former CTO-type colleague (not to mention good old fashioned geek), Jeremy Ruston, has formed a one man company over the past few years called Osmosoft. This company and Jeremy's services have been bought by BT, and it is this team I am joining at the end of July.

It's a hugely exciting challenge. The team (now known as BT Osmosoft) will develop several Web 2.0 applications that will employ and showcase BT's powerful new 21st Century Network.

One of the applications will be based on Jeremy's rather clever TiddlyWiki product. And almost all of our output will work with the splendid Software Development Kit (SDK) which BT have opened up to developers. There are a number of powerful services made available for free to developers, including those based on SMS, conference calls, location, authentication and presence, with more to come. Our products will use these services, and help other developers to do the same.

Still with me? Good! This blog is read by non-geeks as well, so please forgive me for using straightforward language!

We'll be working closely with the open source community, and everything we produce will be open source. That means all the code will be available for anyone to download, amend and re-use, however they see fit. Nobody owns it, Everyone can use it, Anyone can improve it.

My role in all of this is project-manager-cum-comms-guy. I'll be blogging about the work we're doing, helping run the forums and showcasing products at conferences. We'll have a number of customers to consider - open source developers, end-users, BT and others - who will have different expectations. We will be as transparent as possible.

Anyway, that's all for now - more later!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Better late than never

Six years ago, when I changed career from marine insurance (!) to web development, I was getting to grips with a new set of tools and ideas in project management, and trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible from my colleagues. I didn't really consider the landscape outside of the project management realm - there was so much other new stuff to focus on. But I recall very clearly that there was an eye-catching, brightly coloured book which moved from desk to desk in our offices - The Cluetrain Manifesto.

No-one recommended the book to me at the time, and I didn't pay it much attention as a result. In fact it seemed to just gather dust in different places, but a few recent blog postings I've read have made reference to it in revered tones, as a kind of bible for the internet age. I decided it was time to catch up.

It's a bold and brilliant book and I'd encourage anyone using or working with the web to read it. But what has made it all the more interesting is that it has become no less relevant than when it was written in 2000. In fact, the context of Six More Years of Progress has thrown a very interesting light on it.

The general theme is that the internet has broken down the walls of big business. We all have greater access to truth and expertise, and the traditional barriers put in place by big business - press releases, advertising, mission statements, company hierarchies - can and must be circumvented. People working for companies should be encouraged to share their enthusiasm and knowledge directly with the public via the web. And companies who fail to support this will lose credibility and, with it, customers.

All this was already happening (back in 2000), and the manifesto stated that companies who fail to 'get on board the cluetrain' will fail. Just six short years of history have thrown an interesting perspective on the thesis. For one, some of the most successful companies - Apple and Google being the obvious examples - have retained a high level of secrecy to great success. The traditional 'barriers', image and branding, remain as effective as ever.

I also felt it was optimistic to think that everyone who works for a given company would want that kind of contact with a customer. Or to think that all kinds of customers want that kind of contact either. People are naturally resistant to change. My benchmark for this level of adoption is; would the Royale family be interested? Almost certainly not. They are happy watching TV every night and drinking the advertising kool aid, a drink which big brands are still more than happy to serve up. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

But what was amazing was how much of the book is still as relevant today as it was in 2000 - if not more so, at least from my perspective. Companies such as Sony have suffered horribly over the past few years because of their attempts to hide the truth (think: Sony Rootkit). And while Apple control their brand and image very closely, their forums are open and brilliant. The actions of every major company are scrutinised on Digg, the Blogosphere and in traditional media - and that's great for everyone except the companies who are either hiding something or who aren't willing to engage with their customers.

Of course these things take time. But I'm encouraged to think that we're moving in the right direction. Who's to say that the next 20 years won't prove the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto right in the long run?

Streetview....It's the only life I know

I'm finding the current excitement about Google Streetview intriguing.

If you haven't seen it yet, I urge you to take a quick look at the product - it is amazing. Click here, and click on the yellow man. Then start clicking the white arrows. Voila, you're traveling around New York (Greenwich Village, to be precise).

First off, from a technological perspective, it is spellbinding. Such a simple concept, executed beautifully. How they've created the illusion of movement without (as far as I can see) using streaming technology is beyond me. Pure Google. Here's one of the vehicles that took the photos.

First came the amusement. Here are some of the 'best' streetview shots. But the inevitable privacy issues have come to the fore, many of which seem to centre around a cat that was photographed in a woman's flat window. And the latest thoughts and concerns are rounded up nicely on a Boing Boing entry yesterday.

One of the comments mentioned stalkers, but I'm surprised to notice that no-one has said anything about paedophiles. How many schools, kindergartens or playgrounds did the Google car go past? Won't somebody please think of the children? Should these pictures be masked in some way? If so, how? And where do we draw the line? Who draws the line?

We're on new ground here, and it intrigues me to see how privacy expectations and laws flex in the face of new technology. We accept CCTV because it has a limited audience who probably doesn't care about us, so long as we're not breaking the law. But while the streetview data is less detailed than CCTV, it's been provided to a global audience and is but a click away. Comparisons with Flickr or other photo sharing websites don't stack up - to the best of my knowledge, there aren't any pictures of my house on Flickr. Nor my daughter's playground. And even if they were, it would be tough to find these photos armed just with the knowledge of where they're located. Not so with Streetview.

Google claim famously to 'do no evil'. They're in a gray area right now, and their reaction to these concerns will not only affect my view of the company, but will establish a precedent that will almost certainly have implications in years to come.