Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Room with a view


Room with a view
Originally uploaded by Phillie Casablanca.

Shame the sun isn't behind us, but there you go. This is the delightful view from my desk at the moment. We're temporarily camped in BT's 21CN SDK office opposite the Tate Modern.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

The way forward

One week in, and things at BT Osmosoft are going swimmingly. I'm gaining an understanding of my role, my team and BT's wider objectives. Big changes are underway to improve customer service across the Group. But the most interesting thing I've been learning about is TiddlyWiki's standing in the open source community.

TiddlyWiki was originally created by Jeremy Ruston (my new boss), but has since taken on a life of it's own. It's a country mile from the products and projects I've worked on in the past. While at LBi, a client would typically ask us to help create a product that was better than (or at least as good as) other solutions already in the public domain, such as photo applications, social networking tools or online shops. We relied on our user centred design process which, by focusing on user's goals, is a tried and tested way of meeting these lofty ambitions.

But with TiddlyWiki, we're approaching things from a completely different angle. A single person, playing with Javascript and pushing browser capabilities to their limits, created something unique and made it available for other people to play with and amend to suit their needs. And the interesting thing is that it is useful to different people in very different, unforeseen ways. In this case, it doesn't make sense to ask the question "what are the user's goals?", because not only do these goals vary widely from person to person, but they're changing all the time and - this is the key - the users are not only willing to make these changes themselves, they enjoy doing so.

It would be presumptuous for us to try and pigeon hole these goals into an "approved list", especially as it would probably halt the innovation process dead in it's tracks.

That isn't to say that we won't be looking to apply the principles of good interaction design on the work that we do. And I imagine if we wanted a particular flavour TiddlyWiki to go mainstream, then we might need to take a fresh look at the product from a non-techies point of view.

So why is TiddlyWiki being used in so many different ways? To try and make sense of this, I'll be looking at the main features of TiddlyWiki in a future post. Watch this space...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Mmm...consumer electronics

So I've just splashed out on a honkin' new LCD TV, and it has completely changed my life. OK, maybe not. I still haven't watched any high definition (HD) content on it, which makes it the home entertainment equivalent of buying an Aston Martin and only using the first and second gears.

But still, the Digital Freeview channels look very good, the on-board image processor does a fine job of upscaling DVD content and the contrast ratio makes colours and blacks look fantastic. It's a Sony Bravia KDL-32D3000, by the way. Before you say it, I didn't base my decision on the adverts (although they are gorgeous), but rather I did heaps of research on places like AV Forums (a good place to start if you're thinking of making a similar purchase).

I've now turned my attention to getting HD content onto the damn thing. The options are not good:
  • Pay Sky £299 for a set-top box, £30 for installation, subscribe to their premium packages and then pay an extra £10 a month on top for eight HD channels
  • Subscribe to Virgin Media and pay an extra £150 for their box, plus £5 a month for HD services, which currently only consists of one channel (BBC HD), plus a few movies on demand
  • Buy an HD DVD or Blu-Ray player (or suitable games console) and start buying Blu Ray or HD DVD discs. Unfortunately, there aren't many great titles out yet, and besides its an expensive option still
  • Download HD content from the web (there aren't many legal options, trailers mostly) and buy a media centre of some description. A Mac Mini is the only option that meets all my needs, and that starts at £399, unless I go down the eBay route
So, those all suck.

I've been keeping a close eye on the HD trial which the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have been running over-the-air. The resulting report has recently come out and makes interesting reading, particularly if you're into the geeky side of broadcasting. Especially the logistics of getting all the World Cup 2006 games broadcast from Germany onto HD screens in London.

Anyway, the net result of all this is that there are no cheap options, very few good ones, and not much on the horizon either. Hopefully the positive results of the HD trial will persuade the powers-that-be to somehow open up more bandwidth to allow HD content onto Freeview. We can do without half the channels that presently exist, if it means we get to watch Planet Earth in glorious HD without paying through the nose.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Hyper-locality

Just finished reading a very cool article in Wired, written by a "top tier geo-blogger" in the year 2017....I've always been interested in those who speculate about what the future holds, even if I'm not that good at it myself...!

Hyper-locality is an interesting concept. The theory goes that, in 2017, everyone has got over the supposed invasion of privacy caused by devices being location-aware, and society now depends on these devices to make things tick. Someone without a mobile, for instance;
....has no email, voicemail, pager, chat client, or gaming platform. And probably no maps, guidebooks, Web browser, video player, music player, or radio. No transit tickets, payment system, biometric ID, environmental safety sensor, or Breathalyzer. No alarm clock, camera, laser scanner, navigator, pedometer, flashlight, remote control, or hi-def projector. No house key, office key, car key... Are you still with me? If you don't have a mobile, the modern world is a seething jungle crisscrossed by electric fences crowned with barbed wire. A guy without a mobile is beyond derelict. He's a nonperson.
As the blogosphere has chosen this week to celebrate ten years of blogging, it's interesting to consider what the future holds. And it's a constant source of fascination to me that my children won't know any different. It's going to be fun finding out...

The Latest Frontier

The new Google Reader application on Facebook is noteworthy. You can set it to display your own shared items (here are mine), someone else's shared items, or - and here's the kicker - the world's most popular shared items.

Why is that interesting?

It's all to do with the way we cut, slice and manipulate data on the web. Having just finished David Weinberger's stellar book, Everything is Miscellaneous, one gets an understanding of how we categorise information, and how that affects the human capacity to process knowledge. Weinberger talks about the Dewey Decimal System, and how that tried to make sense of a world full of atoms. Now we have tagging, which not only provides a means of categorizing assets in multiple ways, but most importantly puts the power into the hands of end users. This in turn makes the information more valuable and accessible to all of us. And shifts the power from those who own the information (such as traditional media) to those who consume it. This is not a static boundary.

Being able to view one person's shared items is certainly valuable. I follow Robert Scoble's link blog (as he calls his shared items) via RSS, and it's often more interesting than his actual blog - which I suspect he'd admit himself. I don't have time to read all the feeds Scoble reads, so it's useful to have someone siphon off what he sees as the items I might find interesting.

On the face of it, taking another cut of the Google Reader data to present the aggregation of most shared items isn't such a big deal. But for me, it's interesting on two levels; first, I get to discover interesting content that I might not otherwise had found and, second, it pushes the boundaries of information dissemination just a little bit further. And that's good for everyone.

Monday, 9 July 2007

About Pownce

I've just being playing with Pownce, the social networking tool produced by Digg's Kevin Rose (among others), and the not-really-all-that-surprising headline is that it's very much like Twitter. I can't imagine that the additional ability to send a file is going to be enough to convince my Twitter friends to haul ass over to a different platform, and there aren't many other reasons to do so. The desktop application (which uses AIR) is nice though, and seems much more stable than Twitterrific. I just wish Pownce had got to us first.

Anyway, that isn't the point of this post. While I'm not normally in the habit of writing look-what-I've-found" type posts, I was struck by the "About Us" page on Pownce, and particularly the "How's it made" section:























So that's 12 products strung together to create what is, in essence, a very simple messaging site. Remarkable! Surely this is some kind of functional simplicity vs technical complexity record? Regardless, I love the way they're wearing their technical hearts on their sleeves, and this is yet another example of effective transparency (if not the radical kind) being used in the marketplace. I find myself rooting for the human beings behind this service, even if I do face an uphill battle to get my friends on board.

Thoughts on Facebook

It's now a few months since the Facebook craze swept through my real-life social network. Certainly the adoption rate has been helped by the me-too effect, and now we're all on board it's almost as much fun as Twitter! Adding contacts is a breeze, although I wish I could link to a basic profile of someone after a search, to make sure they are the person I'd like to add as a friend.

In fact there are several areas where it's broken. The user experience is far from intuitive at times, especially when it comes to managing applications. And several of the applications I've tried to add have been broken before I could get them added. Obviously this isn't always the fault of the Facebook team, but users won't care. I often find myself hunting around the page for the link I need - always a bad sign. Also, privacy settings aren't configurable - anyone added as a contact sees everything uploaded. What if I only want my family to see pictures of the family event? I'd go elsewhere, of course.

And that list is just for starters.

The founder of Facebook, 24 year old Mark Zuckerberg, claims to be in it for the long term (which is why he's not selling to Yahoo! or Google or anyone else for that matter), and it's hard not to admire his tenacity to date, arrogant ageist comments notwithstanding. The opening up of the Facebook platform to the developers was seen as visionary, but this has had mixed results from my (user) perspective.

I think there's a tipping point coming. Users will tolerate these shortcomings so long as they're continuing to get enjoyment from the site and there isn't anything better out there. If you don't give customers what they want in this environment, someone else will come along and do it instead. And, if that better thing is easy to try out, and switch to, then Facebook has a problem. And I think it's on it's way sooner than Zuckerberg might think.

It's not hugely surprising to hear that both Yahoo! and Google are working on next generation social networking tools (Google already owns Orkut, although this hasn't had much success outside South America). And these are just the projects we know about. My advice to Zuckerberg: get off the lecture circuit, get back in the lab and improve your product....the competition is on your tail...

Thursday, 5 July 2007

WikiWednesday

This blog posting continues the theme of working on my future job outside office hours!

So, last night I went to WikiWednesday. What's WikiWednesday, I hear you ask? Well, on the first Wednesday of most months, a bunch of wiki enthusiasts get together to talk about all things wiki. Their experiences, their problems and their motives.

It was actually pretty cool. Not The Fonz cool. More like Planet Earth cool. But definitely cool. There were geeks a-plenty (about 60, including some females, I was glad to see!) and the focus was on how wikis are used in businesses. Topics covered the merits of locking pages (should this be possible or necessary?), other ways of preventing abuse (and the lack of prior examples where abuse had taken place), and what kind of documents should live on a wiki. HR policy documents were a good example; a small team collaborates on them, then they're issued to a company. Subsequent amendments should only be made by HR. Should that be forced in some way?

Interesting stuff.

Before all this though, we (being BT Osmosoft) got the chance to pitch TiddlyWiki. I'd seen TiddlyWiki before, but not plugged into BT's web services. Having collected everyone's phone numbers beforehand, with very little effort we were able to import their contacts into a TiddlyWiki, click a button and a conference call was set up between about 10 pairs of people - quite funny seeing everyone's phone ring at once. YouTube video is on the way...!

It occurred to me that all of us Osmosoftians will need to get good at pitching TiddlyWiki to a mixed audience. Techies are fascinated by how it works, but it is difficult to grasp the benefits quickly if you're a non-techie, and even harder if you're not used to working on wikis. And it needs to be clear why TiddlyWiki and BT's web services are compatible. More on this later.

But the best thing about the evening was that I got to meet my new colleagues. I'd met a couple of them before, and they're a very decent crowd. And they're just as excited as I am about the whole venture. All good!

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Go, Leeroy!

I thought the South Park parody of World of Warcraft was funny, but then I saw this. Am now thinking I should adjust my own project management techniques to suit - what do you think?

TiddlyShenanigans

So now everyone knows I've resigned, and I'm in that weird limbo place between resigning and leaving. Finding it very hard to convince people that I'm still working hard. They give me this look that says "yeah, right, of course you are Phil, you're not on the green at all". Meh.

But I am spending out-of-office hours looking at the next job with BT Osmosoft. They've just launched their new website, which also stands up as a good example of TiddlyWiki in action. If you're curious to see how it works, visit the site, start clicking on links and you'll see it all explode open in glorious TiddlyTechniColour. Double click on an item, and you can edit it there and then. Save it to your hard drive, and you'll find that the whole wiki exists in a single html file (minus images of course, but including style sheets).

Of course you can't save your changes to the BT server, but you'll get the idea of how it works for those who have the rights. Remember this is all open source, so if you want to download a version and amend it to your needs, go right ahead.