Friday, 26 October 2007

Frickin' lasers

Question: What do you get when you cross nine Osmosoftians with a light wand, an optic fibre brush, frickin' lasers and some long camera exposures? Answer: good clean geeky fun. Heaps of cool photos (all taken by Paul Downey and Phil Hawksworth) can be seen here.

Osmosoft in the countryside

We're in the countryside at the moment, and have found a helpful way of spelling Osmosoft. More photos here. People getting geeky with soldering irons, lasers and LEDs...you'll have to check back later to see the results...

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Facebook rant

I've had just about enough of Facebook; its hanging onto my custom by a very thin thread. I'm finding more and more reasons to turn it off as time passes. Why? Here's why.

1) Walled garden. If I add my content to Facebook, it's still my content. I should be able to do what I like with it.
1a) If I add a photo in Facebook, or add a video in Facebook, I can't embed a thumbnail link to it from my blog
1b) If I want to get my information out, I can't. This makes me very nervous about putting it in.

2) Sucky user experience. Where do I start?
2a) If I want to track all the changes made by all my friends, I can't. I just get a selection chosen by Facebook (alright, I can change the emphasis by stating my preferences, but what if I want all changes and all additions by all my friends?)
2b) What if I want to follow these changes via my chosen centralised tool (my RSS feed reader)? Answer: I can't.
3c) I've listed several others before. The above two annoy me enough to write this second post, though.

3) Poor treatment of developers
3a) As my colleague has found, if you build applications using Facebook's tools, they have a habit of changing their platform without warning. Net result; broken application. What if your livelihood depended on this?
3b) Some developers have reported that their ideas have been stolen by Facebook. There's no way of proving that Facebook weren't already developing these ideas themselves beforehand, but there is an awful lot of smoke.

It all smacks of arrogance. At the recent FOWA conference, Dave Morin (Senior Platform Manager at Facebook) talked about how the photo app was built in two weeks. And how the events app was built in a day. If they can make changes this quickly, why haven't I seen any improvements on the site since I started using it in March? Are they too busy playing frisbee with Google? Why aren't they communicating with us? I mean, one blog entry since 26 September is hardly keeping an open dialogue. And, I'm sorry, but not allowing people to leave comments means it isn't a blog, anyway. Ironic that they're something of a faceless entity, isn't it?

I've already predicted that future competitive products will be more open. Perhaps if this is true, Facebook will open up their platform to match. I honestly don't think they'll have much of a choice. In other words, they might be milking their current system (forcing people to their site to watch their adverts) for all it's worth for as long as they can. And we, their customers, simply cannot let them get away with this if it turns out to be the case.

To be fair, I've also been thinking about what I like about Facebook. I like the fact that I've used it to reconnect with friends I'd lost touch with. Some of the applications are interesting. And I like that I get some information from people that I wouldn't otherwise get. But most of the useful updates I receive via Facebook are from other people's twitter feeds i.e. I get those already. Now, if I could just convince my friends in Facebook to move over to Twitter, I wouldn't need Facebook any more. They can link to their photos on Flickr or Picasa Web Albums. They can link to their videos on Youtube. And we can follow and filter all this either in real time (via Twitterriffic) or at leisure (RSS feed). No need for Facebook any more.

They say that every time you hurt the web, a LOLCat dies. Well, Facebook, you're killing a lot of LOLCats right now, and I'll be the first to cheer when the LOLRSPCA pay you a visit.

What's your Facebook beef?

TiddlyWiki in BT

I've been asked to create a short movie showcasing the use of TiddlyWiki in BT since Osmosoft kicked off 3-4 months ago. It can be accessed by clicking here (20mb, mp4 format).

I've uploaded it to YouTube too, but for some reason the transcoding has screwed up the first few seconds. No idea why that's happened.

I'd like to mention one problem and solution in case someone else is doing a Google search for it. I used Snapz Pro X to do my screen captures (great product, btw) and imported these files into Final Cut Express HD to blend with camcorder footage and audio. The overall effect is quite pleasing, but for the life of me I couldn't maintain the (pixel perfect) integrity of the screen captures, they come through all blurry. It's a shame because I think they let down the overall quality of the presentation.

Anyway, I think I've made headway with the solution. It looks as though the pixel count and frame rate all have to be consistent between initial capture in Snapz Pro X, then saving in Snapz Pro X, then the project settings in Final Cut Express HD, and finally with the export to Quicktime. So the starting point, I think, is choosing your project settings in Final Cut Express based on the native resolution of the camcorder footage (assuming you're using some), working out what the resolution and frame rates are, and then applying this all the way from capture through to export.

How do you find out the native resolution of the camcorder footage? Go to the main menu in Final Cut Express, select "Easy Setup", and then select the type of camcorder footage you're using. DV-PAL, for example, is a common selection. Then go to the Final Cut Express user guide, turn to page 203, and you can see that DV-PAL uses 25 frames per second at 720x576 pixel size.

YMMV for Final Cut Pro. Or indeed if you're using a camcorder setting (or "sequence input") that isn't shown on the small table in the user guide - you'll have to figure out how to calculate pixel count and frame rate yourself, I guess. And if you're using anamorphic PAL, which is basically stretched PAL with black lines added in post-production at the top and bottom, I'm not sure how you should capture the footage in Snapz Pro X.

I think that a premium product like Final Cut Express should somehow figure all this stuff out for you and clean up the image, or at least make it easier to figure out. Or even come bundled with it's own equivalent to Snapz Pro X (hint: buy the company, Apple). Just my two cents.

UPDATE 01/04/08: If you've found this useful, I've done more blog posts on this subject, you can find these here.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Snark

I'm not normally the type to complain, but I do get upset when people use incorrect grammar or spelling. It's involuntary, I can't help it, and it often gets me into trouble. There is no nice way to correct people's grammar or spelling; no matter how much you smile you're still saying "you suck at your native language".

Worst offence? "Hope your well". It's "you're", people!

Anyway, I was pleased to see that grammar and spelling nazis have their place on the interwebs. I love this blog, which highlights the "unnecessary" use of "quotation marks" (especially as they accepted my humble submission), and also this one which, literally, tracks abuse of incorrect use of the word literally. Thank you.

And now I've declared my dislike of these errors, I'm sure someone will find such an error somewhere on my blog. I offer a prize to the first person to find one, and a prize-and-a-pint if you happen to find one in this article. Good luck.

PS While I'm on the subject of pet peeves, can we please extend the national curriculum so the next generation don't get Big Ben mixed up with the Palace of Westminster Clock Tower (also sometimes called St.Stephen's Tower)? Even the mighty Beeb have got this wrong today. Grr.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Home / Work

One of my recent assignments involved looking at the way that technology in the home is muscling it's way into the workplace. I was asked to represent BT with three other large suppliers to help our mutual customer figure out how best to support this evolution.

From the user's point of view, it's not a complicated problem. I use Facebook, I blog, I twitter, I use an iPhone, I read RSS feeds, and I want to harness all this in my work as well as at home, for professional and personal benefit.

But when we start looking at things from a business point of view, the situation becomes much more complicated. The two main issues are technical support and intellectual property (IP). Technical support first; at the recent assignment, all the companies round the table were massive (all 100,000+ employees, I think). Supporting the technological needs of a company this size presents all sorts of problems, especially when you consider the breadth of employee technical competence. Computers are locked down to some degree, ensuring that virus protection updates and other software are pushed up to the user at frequent intervals, and unknown / unsupported software can't be installed. This makes the job of the IT department manageable, at least. And then there's IP; these companies all have ideas which need to be protected. Documents need to be stored safely, and the IT department is charged with preventing information from being leaked (either intentionally or accidentally).

But times change. Users are demanding greater freedom. The workforce is becoming far more adept at fixing their own technical problems. New technology and services offer significant benefits to the enterprise. And smaller, nimble companies (without support or IP legacies to worry about) are gaining a commercial edge through embracing these technologies. How should large companies change in this environment?

I believe there are a few principles which need to be embraced. First of all, recognise that this is first and foremost a cultural change. It isn't something that can be addressed just by changing a policy document. In the course of writing this post, I came across this wonderful description on Deborah Schultz's blog:
If you are an individual it is about creativity and expression and connection. If you are a company it is an attitude, behavioral and cultural shift. It should be about persistence and dialogue and being in it for the long-haul. It is strategic.
Well put.

I'm sorry I keep bringing up the Cluetrain Manifesto, but once again it's totally relevant in this discussion. Customers are staff. Staff are customers. Technology is just an enabler. It helps us find new ways to engage in conversations, which lead to relationships, which lead to transactions.

The second principle is leading from the front. Why waste so much time focusing on weighty policy documents that staff don't even read? And which need to be re-written every time new technology challenges existing principles? The best way to help people understand the cultural change is by example. It also encourages people to share their findings, meaning the benefits multiply through the organisation.

That isn't to say there shouldn't be a policy. You need something which defines where the line is drawn. Some staff might need this for reference, especially if they're unsure. But I believe the main reason for defining this line is so that the security and IT guys agree how to support the employees, NOT as a stick to hit people with when they wander close to the line.

And that's the key. Define the people's needs. Design the policy and system around those needs. Keep the policy lightweight to keep it manageable and allow for the unforeseen technical advances to come. Then sit back, watch staff morale go up, watch innovation manifest itself throughout the organisation, watch staff retention improve and watch efficiencies spring up. Sure the IP and support issues increase, but the benefits outweigh the risks.

Don't they?

Believe


Jonny on the plinth
Originally uploaded by Phillie Casablanca.

On the eve of the World Cup Final, Madame Tussauds have put their Jonny Wilkinson waxwork on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. Just wish I'd cleaned my lens beforehand...

More photos on my Flickr page. Going to have to go Pro soon...

Monday, 15 October 2007

Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day. Thousands of bloggers around the globe have agreed to write blogs drawing attention to the environmental problems that unite us all.

We all know ways we can make a difference. And fifteen thousands bloggers (and approx. 12 million readers) so far are urging everyone to take action.

Looking for ideas and inspiration? Check out today's entry on the official Google Blog.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Cluetrain Manifesto Revisited

Regular readers of this blog might recall my unbridled enthusiasm for the Cluetrain Manifesto, which signals the empowerment of consumers through the web. Really stirring stuff, and most of it falls into the category of obvious-when-you-think-about-it. Here's a bumper sticker version. And scroll down to the 95 theses on this page for the call to arms. It all begs the question; why aren't all companies already behaving this way?

As I mentioned previously, while I'm a firm supporter of the Cluetrain principles, I feel that the book dismissed "old marketing" a little too lightly. Mass marketing is still very effective for communicating product information and reinforcing brand presence. There are plenty of areas where it's done well, where it still works, and leads to increased sales. And so long as traditional media exists (such as newspapers), there still exists a demand for the humble press release and other traditional PR activities. How can we strip out the bad, leave the good, and augment it with these new principles?

I put this uneasiness to Deborah Schultz (internet-industry veteran and innovator) at the recent FOWA conference, which opened up an interesting discussion about how companies can achieve these objectives. Consensus was quickly reached that old marketing isn't going away any time soon. Quite apart from the fact that it still seems to work, we have to acknowledge that huge amounts of money are involved and people's livelihood depends on this industry. Resistance is inevitable and understandable.

The answer lies, in part, in the way that customer service is treated. Certain companies tend to treat customer service as another vertical installation, alongside HR, accounts, product development, traditional marketing and so on - sometimes going so far as outsourcing the entire customer service department off-shore. The counter-argument is that customer service is something that should sit horizontally across all the other lines of business, where it can be much more effective.

There are lots of reasons why this is the way to do it, ranging from the power of employee blogging (and being allowed to comment on blogs about your product/service), to the quality of your end product when the customer's goals are at the heart of the development process. But I'll focus on one element for now; the importance of one-on-one conversation.

This is where traditional marketing has fallen down, and where the new methods can make a huge difference. Customers have had enough of foreign call centres, scripted conversations, interactive call response, and other symptons of silo'd customer service. When customer service sits right across the company structure, this encourages a culture whereby problems can be handled by the right person more quickly, making it a far more satisfying experience for customers and staff alike. This conversational exchange leads to relationships, which in turn leads to transactions. This process turns disgruntled customers into loyal advocates.

Of course, to suggest all this can happen overnight in a big organisation is unrealistic. But the message to all large companies is that younger, more nimble competitors are doing this stuff already. Tech-savvies in their 20s and 30s are growing up with high expectations. It's time to innovate on an institutional level - or face the unpleasant consequences!

The golden age of video games

Car boot sales are great, aren't they? There's a large one at the end of our road every Sunday, and we've been to a handful this year. There's a fascinating sub-culture that thrives here which is so much more engaging than normal markets; there can't be many better places for people watching.

Of course, they've gone downhill in the last few years, since most people sell their best stuff on eBay. But there are still a few bargains to be had, and it's fun wandering round the stalls. We've mainly kept an eye out for toys, books and clothes for the kids (they grow up so fast, you know, and we're not made of money), but I've also kept an eye out for retro gaming equipment.

I hit the jackpot today! A full working Commodore 64, complete with packaging and leads, all for just £4! That's right, four English pounds! I could hardly keep my hand steady as I handed over the coins. I love the packaging and branding, it's worth reminding the kids that Apple weren't the first to do this right:
Commodore 64

When I was in my teens, it seemed most of my friends had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or a Spectrum+. A few had Amstrad CPC 464s. But I was the only kid I knew with a Commodore 64. I'm convinced to this day that the graphics and games were superior. It kept me out of mischief for the best part of 5 years, until I sold it to raise enough money for my first proper stereo - a sale I've grown to regret as the years have gone past.

In fact, it's not precisely the same model I had as a callow youth. Mine looked like this, and the one I bought today is the 64c, and looks like this. But they're essentially the same under the hood. And they play the same games. And so I'm now off to eBay to look for games such as Gauntlet, Starquake, Summer Games, Knightmare, Bubble Bobble and Yi-Ar Kung-Fu. So much for saving money at car boot sales....

Friday, 5 October 2007

FOWA - Day 3

Third and final day at FOWA. Three days, it would seem, is a bit too much for a conference - my brain is fairly frazzled, and I'm not in the mood for a big blog posting (hooray! I hear you say...!). Fortunately this final day is workshop day, we're not going from session to session every half hour or fighting for front row seats.

Enjoyed a nice session this morning on Mindshare Marketing with Deborah Schultz and Brian Oberkirch - all good Cluetrain Manifesto stuff. Oberkirch also mentioned this excellent blog posting on the subject of measuring successful web communities.

And this afternoon's sesh is on the subject of Interface Design for Web Applications (as opposed to web sites), by Michael Kowalski of Kitsite. Good clean fun.

Although I'm exhausted, I'd still warmly recommend this conference. Wednesday in particular was stellar. Ryan Carson and his team have done a smashing job. Yay, web apps!

Thursday, 4 October 2007

FOWA - Day 2 (Media)

Photos from the last 24 hours are here (including shots from Diggnation and a photowalk to the Thames Barrier):
FOWA - Day 2

Short video clip showing the arrival of Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht for the Diggnation filming is here:

FOWA - Day 2

We're back at the ExCel Centre today for Day 2 of FOWA, and are still buzzing after last night. Day 1 ended on a great high note after most of the delegates had gone home. Kevin Rose, who gave a pretty good keynote speech about the early days of Digg and Pownce, took to the stage with his co-host, the brash, hilarious Alex Albrecht, for a live filming of Diggnation. I reckon 10% of people were still wearing their conference lanyards, the rest seemingly having come just for the filming.

And what a reception! Diggnation is an irreverent look back at the most popular items on Digg. But our hosts seemed more keen to banter with the audience. Both Rose and Albrecht have great stage present and are natural comedians, and made sure the audience had a fun time. Keep an eye out for the podcast on the Diggnation site; it should be up in a few days.

And the other sessions have been pretty good too. Heidi Pollock walked us through the pitfalls of taking a web app onto mobile. Leah Culver (sole developer on Pownce) gave an insightful talk about building a web app on the cheap. And Suw Charman gave a good talk about taking applications into the enterprise. All relevant for our work at Osmosoft.

Photos and a short video will be posted just as soon as the wi-fi here steadies itself.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

FOWA - Day 1 (continued)

I'm really impressed with FOWA so far, the quality of the presentations has been very high and there's plenty to learn. Difficult to condense highlights into a digest, but the best two presentations have been:
  • Robin Christopherson of AbilityNet talking about making web sites accessible. Enlightening and humbling to learn about the range of disabilities that web developers ought to consider when designing websites. Google has an exemplar track record in this area and, interestingly, have gone as far as creating a text-only version of Google Maps for the visually impaired (for details see my twitter feed).
  • Daniel Burka, Creative Director for Digg, gave an awesome talk that was almost perfectly tailored for my current needs. I've recently been looking at experience design in the open source space (see blog postings here and here), and he encountered the exact same problem when redesigning Mozilla products a few years back. Major backlash! Obviously one should be sensitive to the likely reactions, and he gave some useful pointers as to what one can expect. Too much info to go into here, but I'll drop my notes as a comment in response to this blog post.
First batch of photos are online here:

FOWA - Day 1

The Future of Web Apps - Day One

We're here at the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference in London, and the great and the good of Silicon Valley have set up camp in Docklands for the next three days. Plus some Brits have turned up for good measure.

As you'd expect from the name, there's a entrepreneurial spirit in the air. There's a heady mix of old school tech (Sun, Microsoft, Adobe), recent web app success (Digg, Facebook, Flickr) and too many unknown hopefuls to count. Plus the VCs and industry bloggers are in the house. All the start-ups want to know how to make their app a success.

They've kicked things off with what may be the eventual highlight. Om Malik, venerable blogger and founder of the Giga Om blog, is on stage being interviewed with Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch. It was a fairly relaxed chat, the salient points being:

We're seeing too many people entering the same space too quickly. Last year it was personalisable ajax home pages. This year, office app clones (people still aren't using them and the market is saturated) and social networking. All of them lose, except the early front runners.

How can web developers protect themselves from creating something on a platform and then the platform owners e.g. Facebook change their mind? If it's that good, go to the platform owners and ask them for support - if you take their money they're less likely to be competitive with you. But if you're a developer perhaps consider not putting all your eggs in that risky basket. Valid point: there are no killer Facebook applications yet. Why not?

What's the biggest gap in the web2.0 market? Om Malik says: Enterprise. Where are the widgets? For example, where is the widget which plugs into the Salesforce API, with the widget appearing on iGoogle or Dashboard? Michael Arrington says: iPhone development, more and more people will start using mobile devices above desktop devices. Only takes a couple of weeks to put together something useful. If you're going to fail, fail quickly and cheaply and move on.

Where will Facebook be in a year's time? Arrington: in the process of going public. Malik: facing all sorts of legal issues...

More from the floor later.