Friday, 21 November 2008

Web Dev TV

I'm going to be out of the country from 24 November to 26 December, so I guess I've attended my last conference of 2008. I'd like to give some link love to Jon Hicks, who gave what turned out to be one of the most entertaining and useful presentations of the year - his talk at FOWD ("From Design to Deployment") was brilliant. It was filmed, but tragically the film didn't include the slides - they were published separately. So for the benefit of any aspiring web developer, or even old hands who want to brush up their coding skillz, here's the video and the slides in one place.


Jon Hicks - FOWD London 2008 from Future of Web Design on Vimeo.

Jon wrote a thoughtful blog post including all of the assets referenced in his talk (including the film at the end) - you can find it here.

Nice work, Jon!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Serendipitous discovery

We're planning an "intranet lunch" at The Team (I'm not scared to link there now, but watch this space), where we'll be inviting a few customers in to float some ideas we've had. I'll be able to share these ideas once they've been shared with the customers, but in the meantime I've been thinking about the ways in which intranets could be used.

For me, the most interesting function of an intranet is to serve as a medium for serendipitous discovery. In medium to large size companies, especially those which are growing (and yes this applies to The Team, too) information flow becomes an important problem to solve. Not only are more levels of management inserted between senior decision makers and those at the coal face, but it becomes harder for customer facing people to share knowledge between themselves as well.

In addition, as layers of management increase, it becomes even more important for customer facing people to be empowered to innovate, to respond to market conditions and customer demands rapidly and effectively. The chances of this happening increase rapidly when staff are aware of each others skills, problems, experience...and availability.

Senior management has to put tools in place to help this information flow around, and the humble intranet has an important role to play in this. It ain't just about recording information for reference (such as a directory), nor is it just about nourishing existing connections (such as the broadcasting of rules and regulations). It's an opportunity to evolve the way that people collaborate, innovate and succeed.

There are now dozens of existing social tools that can support this objective, and these tools are designed in such a way that they can be integrated into an intranet with virtually no effort. And they're free! Almost every company has people who blog, tweet and tag - they're already sharing stuff, and it's a valuable and quick win to integrate this activity into an intranet. In turn it makes the intranet a more interesting place to visit, increasing traffic, contributions and serendipitous discovery. It's like an un-vicious circle.

On first impression, Twitter in particular looks like a frivilous waste of time. I'd argue strongly against that...I've found it hugely valuable in my past and present jobs knowing what's going through the minds of my colleagues. An individual tweet might have very little value. But when you overlay the twitter streams of a select group of people, serendipitous discovery abounds!

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Good boy!

Hmm, blogging has definitely suffered while I get up to speed at the new place. But in the meantime, there's this:



He's saying the word "Obama". No, really.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

TiddlyTiller - Wikified Project Reporting

So as mentioned in a tweet or two, I've been spending some of my time creating a project reporting tool using TiddlyWiki.

We started with a main objective, and things kind of spiralled out from there. First, I wanted to share a weekly report with the client (simple list of things like budget, status, etc.) and have all these archived and searchable. Then I figured if we were using TiddlyWiki, we could add the minutes in there too. Group them using tags. Auto-generate some templates when needed. And what about maybe using some task management tools?

So I've decided to use Phil Hawksworth's teamtasks as my starting point - which is why it bears a striking resemblance to said wonderful product - and, in the interests of sharing early and often, here's a link to my early modest effort (use right click, save as to your desktop, then open it from there. Or open this version if you just want a play without downloading anything).

In keeping with the practice of giving TiddlyWiki based products ridiculous names, I've decided to call my product TiddlyTiller. As in 'steady hand on the tiller'. I'll be working on a product website a little further down the line, and have agreement from my company to release it under an open source licence (I did the extra work on company time). To most of the people reading this blog, it's simply the right thing to do - but it's a new concept to some of my colleagues. So they deserve credit for that.

So, next steps...I'm going to start using this on one of my projects. Hopefully the client won't have any security constraints that prevent it being opened and read locally. We'll see how we go and probably make some tweaks to improve the core product.

On a parallel path, I'm going to try and corral our designers at The Team into designing a product website for me. Might take a while as they're busy, but we'll see!

Feedback, comments, suggestions....all welcome.

Some things that have happened to me since last time I wrote a blog post

I haven't really had time to blog, what with the new job 'n' all. But to make up for it, here's a quick digest of things Casablanca.

I'm loving the new job! I'm working with a good bunch of people, and they've got some amazing clients - so far, I've just been working on the NHS Choices project. The NHS wants to up their game in terms of preventative medicine and treatment - not just reactive treament - and the website will play a central role in this initiative. So it's all about helping people lead healthy lifestyles. I'm starting off in a project management role, but will swap hats from time to time to lead innovation workshops, and that kind of thing. I'm currently trying to figure out what role VRM can play in all of this, and very much looking forward to the VRM workshops taking place in London on 3rd November.

I've also had fun trying to turn TiddlyWiki into a reporting tool for our project managers (for internal and external stakeholders). The subject of an imminent blog post...

I've resisted linking to our company website up to now as it's pretty awful. The good news is that it's going to be completely overhauled by Christmas, so I'll link to some design assets as soon as they're signed off internally. I can reveal that it's a considerable improvement...

And I've had great fun exploring the general area around my office too! We're based in London Bridge (11 Southwark Street), and I had no idea how interesting this area is away from the river. Apart from the luscious Borough Market, there's all sorts of interesting buildings and people, not to mention a brand of Monmouth Coffee Shop that's brimming with character. I've started taking photos which I'm sharing in a growing photo set on Flickr, but for now here's a couple of snaps from the weird and wonderful Cross Bones Graveyard just round the corner from our offices:

Winchester Geese

Cross Bones Graveyard

More photos here. And more details about the graveyard itself on the Wikipedia page.

In other news, I'm now the proud curator of a Macbook Air, courtesy of my new employers. I say proud; I wish for starters that I'd waited a day or two and picked up the new model with the larger hard drive. And I still think its a mistake building a laptop without an ethernet port. I have to walk around the building with the USB to ethernet dongle hanging out, and it swings like a tail. Still, apart from these minor concerns, it really is a smashing laptop and I'm one of the lucky few in the office to have a laptop at all.

What else? Oh, I've been watching True Blood. It's a new show from the ever dependable HBO, and the premise is that vampires have come 'out of the coffin' and are integrating into society in the US deep South. It's well worth the effort, although I should stress that those who don't like weird sex scenes should probably steer clear...

Last but not least, I've finally gotten around to finishing The Black Swan. I can put my hand on my heart and say that it's one of the most interesting, thought provoking and challenging books I've read in years. I'll never read or watch the news in the same way again. I'll be encouraging the project managers in my team to read it, no doubt.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blog Action Day 08

Today is Blog Action Day, the day when thousands of blogs around the globe agree to highlight a key issue. Last year it was the environment, this year it's poverty.

Unfortunately, what with the pressures of a new job n' all, I haven't had the time to give this post or topic the effort it deserves. But I do believe that we all have a responsibility to do something about poverty, both home and abroad. There are numerous charities that help make this easy - for instance, why not visit the Oxfam site and set up a monthly donation? It's as easy as buying a DVD from Amazon. £10 a month goes a long way.


Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cash-strapped Technology Choices

This recession will be great for free and open source because of the shortage of cash. Last recession saw the mainstream legitimisation of open source operating systems...because it was clear and away the most cost-effective choice. The saying I use is, "come for the price, stay for the quality". Perhaps this recession will legitimise many of the applications (CRM, finance, etc.) higher up the stack.
I think he's made a good point, but the impact won't be quite as high as he - or I - would like. The fact remains that the most important factor in a choice of technology is confidence in the technology. Large software vendors will continue to court the people making the decisions, giving them misplaced confidence about proprietary software, disarming any financial concerns through spreading FUD about TCO.

That said, I'm still optimistic that the financial crisis will mean open source software is at least considered more frequently where it wasn't before. Like I said, I agree open source makes even more sense during these cash-strapped times - my argument is one of impact.

I'm in complete agreement with Nat about open source / cloud services though:
Open source services and cloud computing will benefit from the tight financial situation where conditions will favour opex and not capex. It wil be nigh impossible to borrow to buy hardware or a major software license. An open source software product is free to get through the door, and services around it are delivered from opex not capex. Similarly, cloud computing lets a company pay a little to use someone else's enormous capital investment.
The comments are worth reading, too.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

whitehouse.web

I've been following Barack Obama's progress closely, and am thrilled to see his lead being extended in the polls. If he can do well in tonight's debate, then I believe he need only avoid an Arnie Vidick style disaster and he's almost home and dry.

Parenthetically, there are extraordinary parallels between Matt Santos' fictional campaign on The West Wing and Barack Obama's campaign in real life. Check this out to see what I mean.

Anyway, of particular interest now is the impact that Obama's digital campaign has had on his support base. To my mind, this has been one of the decisive factors in the establishment of Democratic support on the ground; I quote from the BBC Article:
The poll also showed that the Obama camp had a stronger organisation on the ground, with 43% of potential voters having been contacted by Democratic supporters, while only 33% had heard from McCain supporters.
We're watching a future case study as it unfolds. Some social software helps people make connections with people they've never met. And some helps people to establish and nourish relationships that exist in real life as well. Obama's focus on the latter is leading him to The White House. Lessons abound!

The Future of Branding

It's no secret that the web changes the way that companies should market or brand themselves. But there's still some confusion as to how these changes manifest themselves. So I'm pinning some colours to the mast.

Nowadays, the actual values of company staff are becoming increasingly transparent because of the web. This is standard Cluetrain stuff, but the message bears repeating. It has become damaging for a company to say they have particular brand values if these differ from the ACTUAL values that their staff has. And as more people get involved in online social networking tools, and their activity subverts the hierarchies inside company walls, the more visible their actual values become.

So how is the role of branding changing? For me, it's just like branding cattle, where the brand much reflect the actual qualities of the animal. With companies, branding allows a company to understand and present a consistent, unified image - but it must be the truth, never a contrivance. All companies have staff that hold a variety of opinions and perspectives, and a company's brand nowadays has to be sufficiently flexible to not just reflect this, but support it too. It is unwise to retrofit a desired perception onto the unwilling (or unable).

This has a knock-on effect right the way through the company, particularly on HR. You can't hire people and then say "here are your new values"! It's now more important than ever that the actual values of the company drip through every element of the company, from the hiring process through to how staff are treated day to day. And of course this should permeate through to a consistent visual language that can be applied everywhere.

So as with advertising and PR, I think there is an opportunity opening up for those who can understand how the landscape is changing and adapt quickly. Branding still has a key role to play. And it turns out that the companies that have already behaved in the above fashion to begin with have stolen a march on their competitors. Companies like First Direct, Southwest Airlines and Virgin have adopted these policies all along, and frequently feature in best company and best employer lists. Their warm and friendly brands are reflected in their people (well, in most cases anyway). They're also well placed to get through the financial crisis as a result.

And on the other side of the coin we have companies like Microsoft. It doesn't matter how many times Microsoft re-badges itself - and they've really struggled with this - it's an obvious veneer, and I'll bet many people assume Microsoft's real values are reflected in their aggressive and anti-competitive behaviour. Microsoft has many smart and well intentioned people in their ranks, and if their values were reflected in their corporate brand it wouldn't do Microsoft any harm at all. Much as I like the Blue Monster, and everything it stands for, it didn't have much of an impact on their brand image - not from where I stand anyway.

Personal Attack Cow photo shared under a Creative Commons licence on Flickr by Repoort.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

So long...sort of

For those who haven't heard, I've resigned from Osmosoft and I'm off to pastures new! But I'm leaving the gate open behind me, so to speak, for mutual grazing purposes.

I've had an amazing time at Osmosoft. I feel privileged that I was able to spend so much time in the vicinity of so many smart people....such is the nature of the Osmosoft experiment. The idea was that we'd learn as much as possible so we could pass these learnings onto the BT mothership, and I hope I've done my bit via this blog and other channels.

I'm joining the digital arm of an agency called The Team, based in London (by Borough Market). They've got big ambitions, particularly in the open source space, and recently won a great contract with the NHS. I'm hoping that I can use my open source experience to help The Team's clients make informed technology choices, and I'll also be helping The Team to establish a project management framework that's ready for growth.

On a personal note, the NHS gave my family an amazing service when our two children were born, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to give something back!

As for the mutual grazing, I'm hoping to continue involvement in many of the projects and initiatives I've worked on while at Osmosoft (open source, TiddlyWiki, VRM, all-things-web), so I'll still be attending public events and workshops on these subjects, hopefully running into the aforementioned smart folks from time to time. We've made much of our 'porous membrane' at Osmosoft and I hope to continue in this vein at The Team. The blogging, twittering, flickring, upcominging (?!), vimeoing and dopplring won't stop here!

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Making open source products usable

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm intrigued by the idea that the involvement of user experience disciplines in open source projects could be a catalyst for improving mainstream adoption.

I'm most interested in those cases where the target market includes non-developers and where a proprietary offering commands market share right now (think: Ubuntu, OpenOffice, Pidgin, Gimp). Although developers on the whole dislike poor UI as much as the next man, developing usable complex systems for the common man is a far more interesting challenge, doubly so when it dovetails with the intrinsic benefits of grassroots development.

It's a really tough problem to crack. The open source world is ruled by developers, who are sometimes resistant to non-developers telling them how they could improve "their" product. Which is a shame, as not all developers have the knack of designing intuitive user interfaces on their own, never mind in concert. For more on that, read this.

This is why the projects most likely to integrate the different disciplines successfully will most likely have a financial sponsor. Someone with the financial clout and the vision that persuades multi-disciplined contributors (developers and non-developers) to collaborate.

This still leaves you with the problem of how, exactly, the (top down) user experience guidance can dovetail with the (grassroots) development process. To me, it feels as though appropriate talent pairing and knowledge sharing could help here. Get the UI designers working closely enough with key developers to pool their perspectives, and share their subsequent insights with other people in their disciplines.

Anyway, I was interested to see Mark Shuttleworth - leader of the Ubuntu project - also agreeing with this school of thought, and even offering a few insights about how he might go about achieving this. To my mind, Ubuntu is one of the few Linux desktop distributions that has the resource potential to challenge OS X in terms of user experience.

He's got his work cut out, mind. But I'm hopeful that he'll use his best asset: the Ubuntu community. When the first set of design assets are ready, I'd like to see him share them with the community and study their feedback carefully. Present multiple options. Hopefully this will focus the design effort in a direction that isn't going to cause too much disruption (eliminating unviable options).

I'm also hoping he'll be able to create and share working versions that can demonstrate how the design principles might manifest themselves. This is a chance to watch what people do (as opposed to what they say).

I love the analogy that our experience of the web so far is akin to three seconds after the Big Bang! Open source as a term is only ten years old, and here we are standing on the edge of solving one of the most significant problems open source faces. This will not only be interesting in the short term, but hugely rewarding to all of us in the long term. There's a huge amount of potential just waiting to be unlocked!

Photo shared under a Creative Commons licence on adewale_oshineye's photostream.

OSS del Milano

I've spent the last couple of days at OSS 2008, one of Europe's premier open source conferences. It's my first experience of an academic type conference; all of the speakers (most of which were either students or professors) had submitted ~5,000 word essays in support of their talks, and these were bound into a book presented on arrival.

The conference was dryer than other events I've been too. Most of the sessions were based on empirical studies and it seemed to me that several speakers were treating their study as an end in itself, rather than as a discipline with practical value. For instance, one presenter went to great pains to show that open source is growing quickly, and wanted to use mathematical models to predict how this trend would develop. Ignoring for one moment the flaw in this approach (the open source world and software industry are vulnerable to external forces; mathematical models won't work here), what's the point of trying to predict this stuff? I mean, it's vaguely interesting to know what the current health of the market is like, backing up what most people already know (is healthy, yes!), but trying to extrapolate this data into the future is pointless at best.

Anyway, rant over! There were some interesting insights in some of the other sessions. Many of the talks focused on how communities were structured, how they operate and how they're likely to evolve:
  • We learned about a project (Project Laika) which had bloomed and then declined, so plenty of lessons learned there. The main one was that they tried to fix everything that users asked for, rather than encouraging the community to get involved in the fixing, and this didn't scale.
  • Walt Scacchi has observed that open source projects are changing as non-developers are getting involved, which obviously resonated with me. The folks who can mediate discussions between developers and non-developers become essential hubs in these new communities. Separately, Walt's also setting up a helpful repository for research papers.
  • There was also a useful session on how trust is formed in open source projects. The conclusions were that new users approaching a project for the first time undertake a quick assessment based on reputation, number of downloads, amount of activity and longevity of the project. And as they get more involved in a project they focus more on openness of the whole development process (e.g. availability of bug tracking tools, documentations, etc.), the way builds are tested and integrated, availability of intermediate milestones and implementation processes. Faith in the system leads to trust, which leads to contribution.
As for Milan itself, Milan is cool. I managed to avoid all the Mafia-infested avalanches, which was a relief. The weather was great, and we got the chance to wander around town. The architecture was amazing; this is Duomo church in the main square:

Duomo di Milano

And you can clamber around on the roof!

Flying buttresses

Roof of Duomo

There's also an epic covered arcade called Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II:

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

And the impressive Castello Sforzesco:

Torre del Filarete

We found some unfortunate signs around the city...

NO GPL!

We had lovely pasta and pizza for most main meals, in charming family run restaurants:

Ex Mauri

...but the desserts were the star of the show!

Mille-feuille

I missed out on eating Gelato, but you've got to leave something for next time, haven't you?

You can see the full set of photos on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Fighting Wikinomics

I'm noticing an alarming trend by Wikipedia editors. They seem to be holding articles to a much higher standard than they did before. Problem is, the glory of Wikipedia (and wikis in general) is that poor quality content is much, much better than none at all.

The first I heard of it was when Doc Searls complained that wikipedia were about to delete his entry. It would be bad form for him to edit his own entry, and fortunately there were plenty of people who were willing to make the required changes for him (unlike Tara Hunt, who no longer has an entry). His entry is now safe.

Fortunately, all the changes are visible. Let's have a quick look at Doc's entry: before and after the threats of deletion. There have been slight improvements. Were the threats of deletion really necessary? Couldn't Wikipedia have just pointed out the issues with the article in a colourful box at the top of the page?

And here's a current example. Someone has created an entry for "tiddler" (a component of the TiddlyWiki product). Unless we can prove that the entry is notable, this entry will be deleted. Anyone who wants to correct this would have to understand the modest notability guidelines and the extensive citation guidelines. This requires a lot of time and effort. So if this entry is deleted, will no entry at all be better than the current situation? Of course not.

I think Wikipedia is losing sight of what made them great in the first place, and what makes wikis good in general. Public edits, a low cost of repair and virtually unlimited storage allowed the project and the community to bloom. Driving up quality is an admirable objective, but this shouldn't be pursued at the expense of the broad value of information contained within.

Don't get me wrong. Having a clear set of guidelines is essential, and the NPOV guidelines in particular have been essential in resolving disputes and setting the tone of some of the more contentious topics. It's been fantastic that the Wikipedia administrators have drawn attention to e.g. lack of citation when it's missing, and helped to correct vandalism when it occurs. But these administrators are now changing their role from moderator to policeman, and this will harm what has become an essential resource. Our essential resource.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Listening to your community

This discussion about the new JQuery website is pretty interesting. Just to recap, their old site looked like this (click these to big, if you want):

JQuery old site

On Friday, they changed it to look like this:

JQuery intermediate site

...and their community went pretty wild. They particularly didn't like the use of the rock star image and metaphor. So they decided to change it to this:

JQuery new site

For me, this all smacks of a badly thought through process, and they're still not thinking smartly.

I'm inclined to draw comparison with another recent failure to engage properly with a community - the unveiling of the London 2012 logo. In both cases, there was an opportunity to canvas opinion with the audience, and this option was ignored (or, worse, not even considered). In both cases it backfired badly.

JQuery has no excuse for not engaging with their community before going down this path. Their community lives on the web, where there are well established tools for seeking, gathering and processing feedback. Try and slip one past this crowd at your peril - just ask Kevin Rose after the encryption key debacle or Mark Zuckerberg after the Beacon mess.

And that isn't to say that the quick change was the best way forward either (although some members of the community appreciated it). For me, this merely repeats and compounds the error. At least the London 2012 guys didn't fall into this trap (although they shouldn't have just left things the way they were either!).

What I think both the JQuery team and the London 2012 team should have done is recognise that community engagement is difficult, messy, time consuming....and very worthwhile, especially if done during the discovery phase of a project. It's also a good way to reverse an error, if accompanied by a well-timed mea culpa. In today's highly connected world, the onus is on public leaders to demonstrate that they've thought things through, but still need the input and support of their community to make the big decisions.

For the JQuery case study, I believe the best path forward would be to outline the logic behind the redesign - what are the objectives of the website? How will they achieve these objectives? - and then present options for the community to consider. Then they need to demonstrate that they're listening, and not just say that they are. If they can do this, then those who don't like the final solution are far less likely to object than if a seemingly arbitrary solution is thrust upon them.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Curation of Open Source Websites

I've recently spent quite a lot of time trying to improve the TiddlyWiki website, and thought this made an interesting case study - so I'm sharing what I've learned here.

Two things made this particular case interesting;
  • The product (and, by extension, the website) is curated by an open source community. So there are no face to face meetings, no project team, and an intellectual group of people to persuade.
  • Where TiddlyWiki is concerned, the website IS the product - and a sophisticated product at that. This affects every element of the experience. So we have to mitigate the potential confusion that can arise from using the product in "website mode", to then downloading something that behaves differently to the site (e.g. allowing saving).
The best way to improve the website was to treat it as a community artifact, just like TiddlyWiki itself; the development process would be kept as open as possible, I would make sure there were opportunities for feedback, and that all of this feedback was given due consideration and response.

When considering how TiddlyWiki.com looked a few months ago, I first considered recommending a complete overhaul. But given the above complexities I was persuaded to identify some quick wins, and implement those first, as a path to later improvements.

This turned out to be an effective approach. The quick wins I focused on were search, navigation, download, installation and content. I tried to see the site through the eyes of a new user going through the process of evaluation, download, installation and experimentation, while also allowing for experienced users who might be returning for advanced requirements.

As the site was developed, I shared these improvements with the community, and those interested in giving support stepped up to the plate. The feedback was intelligent and very helpful. Together we've worked towards a version of the site that has just gone live (yay!).

In my agency days, we'd always warn clients against the perils of designing by committee - a slow route to a messy solution...and one could say that an open source community is the ultimate committee! But the subtle dynamics and conventions at play within the community helped keep the usual problems in check. For instance, there was little or no posturing. And I received a lot of encouragement and support.

And it's interesting to consider the feedback from the community supplanting the kind of feedback one receives from focus groups and traditional user testing. Most people in the TiddlyWiki community have well-above-average technical skills. I remained cautious about developing a site for these users at the expense of less capable visitors, but still the quality of feedback was very high. I'm hoping I can persuade Julie Starr (of TiddlerToddler fame) to give the site her honest feedback....

If you'd like to deep dive into the artifacts:
So where are we now?

So far, we've only implemented a number of quick (but significant) wins on the website - as mentioned; search, navigation, content, download and installation are all much improved. The end result is much cleaner and, I believe, much less intimidating to the casual visitor. My hope is that we can now observe these improvements in the wild, and take further feedback into account moving forwards.

And talking about moving forward, some of the subjects coming onto the table will be pretty interesting, I think...we're talking about things like branding, the logo, creating a sandpit area, improved evaluation (playing with different verticals such as GTD), extended download options, and more. There's still heaps of room for improving the end-to-end experience, and some great suggestions from the community to consider. Watch this space...!

I couldn't have done all this by myself, and thanks are due to everyone in the community who provided feedback, plus my colleagues Phil, Martin, Jeremy and Fred who chipped in at key moments. Thanks, y'all!

Friday, 22 August 2008

CTO, Stars and Stripes Incorporated

While all eyes are on who Obama will pick as his running mate, Robert Scoble's encouraging his readers to discuss who should be Obama's CTO. In case you missed it, Obama has said that, should he become prez, he'll appoint a Chief Technology Officer (CTO), who'll be responsible for setting the technology agenda in all areas of government. But it stands to reason that such a figurehead would have a highly public profile, and his or her influence would stretch beyond public office, and probably beyond American borders.

From the relative safety of my sofa in London, it's fun to speculate as to who might be good at this job. Scoble included a good suggestion (Larry Lessig) and a jaw-on-the-floor bad suggestion (Bill Gates) in his blog post. Vint Cerf came up in the comments, he'd get a vote from me. But then so did Michael Arrington *slaps forehead*. Some wag suggested RMS!

I was surprised that Doc Searls didn't get a mention. There can't be many web celebrities who are as well informed, well respected and persuasive as Doc. It would be nice if Bruce Schneier was involved in some capacity too; heck, that could have positive repurcussions on their foreign policy too.

The reality is that none of these guys would take a job as Obama's CTO; it really isn't their style. But we can hope that the person elected to the role will be well connected to this crowd, so they can keep abreast of the latest issues and developments (particularly regarding net neutrality and privacy), and not just be influenced by those with the deepest pockets. And fingers crossed we won't get another series of tubes style gaff from someone with more power than sense...

Monday, 18 August 2008

Olympic coverage on the BBC

I knew that the BBC's olympic coverage was good, but I didn't appreciate quite how good until I read this. We shouldn't take the BBC's coverage for granted; they've put in a huge amount of effort and produced something really special, both online and over the air, and for free (if you're in the UK, anyway).

And this is over 5,000 miles away - just imagine what they'll be able to do when it's taking place in our own backyard!

Yay for Auntie!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Snout

A Snout is one of those things that you know you need before figuring out where you'd put it.



Find out more here!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Very Public Relations

Here's an interesting article by PR type Steve Rubel. Money quote:
It's my view that increasingly, bloggers (and maybe journos too) simply don't want our help. Many bloggers - particularly those who cover tech - love to discover new things and experience them on their own, unaided by PR.
Steve, it isn't so much that bloggers (or even the traditional media) want to find their own story. OK, maybe that's a small part of it, but mainly it's that we react badly to anything written in a commercial tone of voice. Look at this random press release.

This isn't intended as a dig at Nike; it's more the PR industry in general. I mean, this press release wouldn't even pass the Turing Test. It's obviously gone through several iterations to allow for the "right" structure, the "right" tone of voice and the "right" message. Almost all evidence of humanity has been left by the side of the road. And it's about the freakin' Olympics!! It's really no surprise that even Rubel throws most of his away.

Here's the thing. These days, we're used to reading articles online written by people who don't hold formal press credentials. Their articles are friendly, genuine, flawed and *much* more interesting to read.

From a company perspective, there's an obvious (albeit scary) way around this problem. Let your workforce talk online about their work. Let them choose the tools to use. The people will self-select. They'll be the ones who are most passionate about what they're doing, and the most knowledgeable. And it's this passion and knowledge that will attract the right audience that the outdated tools can't reach.

This needn't harm the PR industry too much, not in the short term at least. They can still send traditional communications down traditional channels (there are traditional journos out there, after all). But it does represent an opportunity for PR departments and agencies that are willing to evolve. Companies need help transitioning to this model, and there is still value in consistent communication of e.g. company values. And individuals may need support and encouragement.

This is the new face of Public Relations. You have a choice: adapt or fade away!

Building an Open Source Community

Since joining Osmosoft, which is in orbit around a very large telco, I've been interested in the reasons why large enterprises don't integrate open source into their organisations as well as they could. After all, the benefits are well known now, and this is something that individuals can achieve with very little effort - so why not a collection of individuals?

Turns out the main reason (besides culture!) is that large companies are often stuck in a process rut. Systems and processes have evolved over decades to support an organisation which usually either builds software itself or buys it in. And these systems and processes don't lend themselves to the open source way of doing things. Procurement processes, for example, aren't set up to handle open source at all.

It's tempting to think that individuals in a large company don't need processes to adopt open source, but this isn't the case. One good reason why process and governance is needed is that open source software has licences just like proprietary software, and it's essential for a company like BT to make sure these licence terms are understood and applied. Plus sometimes code from two or more different open source projects and licences is merged, and someone has to identify and sort out the result licensing mess. And that's just scratching the surface!

Fortunately, help is available. There's an initiative called FOSSBazaar, which BT has just joined as a strategic partner. The idea is that companies that successfully create processes and tools to manage open source projects share their work and experiences with those who would like to follow suit. This can save everyone a huge amount of time and effort, as starting this stuff from scratch can be onerous. Large companies have a huge amount of resources that can be directed into open source projects, and helping them get started really helps build momentum behind the open source movement.

Anyway, on the suggestion of one of my colleagues, and in the finest tradition of reuse, I've re-hashed an article I wrote a while back ("Building a Developer Community") into a new article for the FOSSBazaar website called Building an Open Source Community. You can read the full article here.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Overriding emotions

So I've been dwelling for several months on this tweet by my colleague Paul Downey.
Me: "the main role of advertising is to use emotion to override informed descisions"
I think it's a really interesting point, and as usual polarising an opinion sparks off the grey matter nicely. It really has been nagging me. But why?

I've done a fair chunk of work in advertising in the past, and so I suppose I felt vaguely put out by the assertion that I've been helping clients to subvert the public. Packaging, most microsites and to some extent the manifestation of brand values all fall into this category. And yet there is some substance to this accusation. Of course clients want to do whatever they can to improve sales.

But on reflection I guess what got my goat is that it points at the weakness of the human condition. As fallible emotional beings we're all susceptible to alluring advertising. And it's irritating that someone with an inferior product can secure market share through an effective ad campaign.

But the alternative is worse. Can you imagine a world where we have to make purely logical decisions about every single thing we bought? Imagine if we had to choose items in the supermarket based just on the facts? After hours in the store we'd return home with stuff we don't even know if we'll like! What about the Paradox of Choice? It's hard enough making decisions as it is; how would we narrow down our options to a more manageable selection, which we can investigate in more depth, without the aid of packaging and awareness of our options as a starting point?

The reality is that we're all emotional beings. And even though we're also guilty of trying to post-rationalise the choices we make, we're wired to get pleasure from these choices. The world would be a pretty dull place if we didn't allow our emotions to guide our choices to some degree.

Besides, much advertising contains information about the product (alongside, y'know, the emotional stuff) so who's to say it doesn't inform decisions, at least in part? Some people have gotten pretty good at separating fact from emotion and, for the others, well, more fool them.

So I've reached the conclusion that it's the human condition at the heart of the matter, and not advertising per se. And hey if your product doesn't live up to the advertising - whether in function or emotion - word gets around fast and you deserve what you get!

Bonus links: Excellent TED footage from Barry Schultz (of Paradox of Choice fame) and Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point fame, but here talking about how more choice is better). Well worth watching.

Acquire and make friends

Our parent company, BT, has just acquired Ribbit, a voice application company based in Silicon Valley - and I'm rather excited about it.

The acquisition makes sense for a number of reasons. First, BT have been changing their image as a telco to that of a software and services company. Ribbit provide a number of services that'll nicely augment those already offered by our SDK team. Also, it gives BT access to Silicon Valley, which is rich in entrepreneurial developer talent, as well as the headquarters of many large tech companies. I'm genuinely excited by BT's continued march into this physical and commercial space.

But this post isn't about that.

Mergers and acquisitions are often quite painful. I experienced two unpleasant mergers in my previous role, both of which involved integration in person. I learned that it's a BIG challenge to get two foreign companies working together. Which is why I've been impressed and surprised by the way social media has been used to develop the relationship between BT and Ribbit, separated by 8 time zones no less.

Ribbit has a Twitter feed, and many of my colleagues jumped on Twitter to wish Ribbit congratulations on the acquisition, and exchange banter ahead of meeting in person. We've challenged them to a table football contest (accepted), as well as threatening them with cocktails. Our own fair unit, Osmosoft, has offered to help them get their feet under the desk. They've been sending photos from the local coffee house, and we've browsed their photos on Flickr. I already feel closer to the Ribbit team than I did weeks after the previous acquisitions.

What can we learn from this? The very nature of mergers and acquisitions is confrontational. There's often the threat of competition, the possibility of redundancies, the territorial hostility, the commercial undercurrents. Social media helps us to neatly sidestep all of that, to develop relationships with human beings. To get a better idea of what makes us tick as human beings, laying the groundwork for the business to follow.

Sounds a lot like Cluetrain to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are bumps in the road ahead, but I think we're much better equiped to handle these now we've become better acquainted.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

25 words

Thanks psd and JP for drawing my attention to the 25 words idea. Here's my modest effort:
Putting your priorities in the right order is much harder than it sounds. And it's even harder keeping them there. But it's worth the effort.

Friday, 18 July 2008

When I die

It's an oft-repeated joke that, on their death bed, people never say they wished they'd spent more time in the office.

But I think this is going to change. Instead, I think people will be wishing they hadn't spent so much of their lives on the computer.

Think about it. Of the best experiences in your life, how many of them were spent online?

As responsible web professionals, we heap praise on web apps which are easier and more enjoyable to use. And this is laudable, to be sure. But maybe we're also focusing on the wrong ends. Maybe we should be praising the apps that help people finish their job, and get back to living their lives? Maybe we should be building them?

The obvious, kneejerk answer is that these sticky and social websites enrich our offline lives. There's truth in there of course. I'm really pointing the finger at myself; I love so much about the web that I have to remind myself that the best times of all are spent away from the keyboard.

These thoughts occured to me after reading this post written by the excellent Scott Berkun.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Battersea Power Station

I've always been a big fan of Battersea Power Station, but have never been able to put my finger on the precise reason why. It's just such a formidable building, and somehow to me represents everything good about London - strong, imposing and resolute, yet stylish and practical.

I suppose I also like the fact that it's such an impressive building and yet it attracts almost no tourists, at least partly because you usually can't get close to it...

But all that might change soon. There are plans a-foot to redevelop Battersea Power Station and the surrounding area. Many others have tried and failed, usually because they underestimate the cost, effort and restrictions involved (it's a Grade II listed building). So it's no surprise that the latest owners need to get public opinion on their side with regard to their current plans. And when I heard that they were opening up the Power Station to the public to support these plans, I jumped at the chance to go for a wander round.

I wasn't disappointed! The building looks even more epic close up than from a distance. After seeing the power station on my daily commute since I moved to South West London in 1992, it was a boost to see it up close. I took a bunch of photos and you can see them here.

As for the planned changes...if it was up to me, I'd insist that the surrounding area be turned into a large park, and for the building itself to be restored to its original state. But we have to be practical. No-one's going to invest in the building or the area unless they can make money somehow. So my practical desire is that they don't build anything higher than the bottom of the chimneys. Also, give the building plenty of space around the outside, so it can be appreciated (there is a park planned, but it isn't big enough). Restore the exterior so it looks the same as it did when it closed in 1983 (no need for retail logos, or roof top gardens!). And, within this confine, do what you like with the inside.

If you're interested in finding out more, or having your say, check out the official regeneration website.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

in which I draw attention to a sham study conducted by Futuresource on behalf of Macrovision

Now this has got me pretty wound up. I picked up on this story in Ars Technica which claimed that one third of U.S. residents rip DVDs. Wait, what? Shurely shome mishtake?

So I followed the trail to this white paper (pdf) issued by Futuresource Consulting, a British PR company. The actual figures they've come up with are 32% in the United States and 36% in the United Kingdom admit to ripping DVDs.

I call bullshit. There's no way these figures are accurate. Most people wouldn't even know where to start. And my guess is that people who (a) know how and (b) can be bothered would be more likely to download their content straight from the web. Even a figure as high as 5% would raise an eyebrow. If you think a third of all people have ripped DVDs, then you haven't met people.

Turns out the research was sponsored by Macrovision, who proudly claim: "Macrovision provides copy protection, digital rights management, digital content licensing and asset management technologies to video, music, entertainment and business software markets". No conflict of interest there then!

But surely even if Macrovision had hired them, Futuresource would still try and demonstrate their integrity. At least they haven't tried to hide the sponsor's name. But where did they find the 5,331 respondents? Slashdot? Usenet? You can't tell from the report. And how were they incentivized to take part? The report doesn't say. You would think that most people smart enough to rip a DVD would also have seen the warnings and promotional films at the start of EVERY SINGLE FILM warning them about piracy. They'd hardly admit to the crime. And what were the specific questions asked? They're not stated in the report. From my experience doing user research, you've got to be very careful not to put words into people's mouths. It's dead easy to manipulate these surveys.

But even still, I doubt very much whether they'd get 1/3rd of respondents to admit to doing something they probably don't even understand. I cast aspersions on thee, Futuresource!!

So, here's a helpful summary:
  • Futuresource are puppets-for-hire, with no integrity
  • Macrovision are so desperate to prop up their broken business model that they'll pay someone to make stuff up
  • And at the very least, shame on Ars Technica for not at least reporting that the white paper was sponsored by Macrovision. You have a responsibility to your readers to do at least a little fact checking before running a piece like this.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

TiddlyWest

One of the things we're trying to figure out at Osmosoft is, generally, how a company should behave when engaging in an open source project. The answer is more complex and interesting than at first it might seem - it depends on many factors, such as the size and maturity of both the company and the project, how many community members are on the payroll, the personalities at work, and so on. Plus these things tend to change over time.

In our case, it's a monster sized Enterprise getting into bed with a young and attractive starlet of an open source project - all the more reason for us to tread carefully and act responsibly.

I've occasionally asked different people what role they would like us to play in the community. Some say they'd like us to put pressure on the core developers to keep the updates coming through. Others say we should clean the figurative toilet, and do the jobs that developers might not enjoy (such as writing unit tests and doing cross browser analysis). On the whole we've tried to behave as though we're unpaid members of the TiddlyWiki community - tinkering with TiddlyWiki and sharing our stuff as we go along - while perhaps doing a little more toilet cleaning and core committer-hassling than the average community member.

We're always striving to improve, by the way, so if you have a view on this do please respond in the comments.

In any event, one piece of feedback we received is that we can help organise events and bring members of the community together in real life. We've already done this twice, at TiddlyAnniversary in September and TiddlyYuletide in December, both of which took place in London, and so, continuing the tradition of ridiculous event names, we were thrilled to co-host the latest event - TiddlyWest - in San Francisco last week.

The most valuable aspect of the event for me was a chance to meet our co-host, Eric Shulman, for the first time. Eric is something of a TiddlyWiki legend, having created more TiddlyWiki plugins than anyone else, and I'm sure everyone present found his presentation fascinating. No-one cared that his ten minute presentation took 40 minutes!

Assembled

We also had a few luminaries from Silicon Valley in the room; Salim Ismail (formerly CEO of Yahoo! Brickhouse, and now working with us to get TiddlyWiki working with his Confabb website), Greg Wolff (President of UnaMesa, which holds the TiddlyWiki code in trust) and Paul Hammant (ThoughtWorks Senior Technical Architect) were all in the house.

Open source fans tend to have a broad set of unusual ideas and interests, and this certainly applied to Rich Shumaker, who demonstrated Contact Juggling at the event:



So when all is said and done, I'm hopeful that we've forged some connections between local TiddlyWiki users and ourselves, as well as helping create a few new fans along the way. And I was thrilled to read the positive feedback in the TiddlyWiki discussion forums.

Thanks are due in no small part to Kevin Werbach and the team at Wharton West, who kindly donated their space and their sandwiches for the event.

There's a full set of minutes, videos, links and photos on the Osmosoft website. And my set of photos can be seen here.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Installing aTV Flash v3.0 on an Apple TV

I've recently installed Apple Core's aTV Flash v3.0 on my Apple TV and, seeing as it's something of a hack, I thought I'd blog about the experience in case others are considering doing likewise.

The aTV Flash v3.0 adds specific functionality to the Apple TV, namely the ability to drag and drop files onto the device from my main computer (any common format), and then have them play via the Apple TV menu. This saves the hassle of converting files into a format that iTunes likes. So this is mainly for video content downloaded via BitTorrent (generally DivX or .avi file extension). It does a bunch of other stuff too, such as adding a browser, but I'm not really interested in the other aTV Flash features.

It all worked pretty well, except for a few minor issues. Here are the details (which I've also just posted to this thread on Mac Rumors: Forums):

Using aTV Flash v3.0, and a 1gb USB thumb drive, I managed to install everything OK. This was with a brand new 160gb Apple TV device.

However I've noticed the performance is a bit patchy. I download most of my content via BitTorrent (so, mostly .avi / DivX files), and so far everything has worked, EXCEPT each time I open a file, it's all a bit strange....the Apple logo comes and goes, and / or it says "please wait" while I can hear the audio has started in the background before it either freezes or the picture comes in, and / or it throws me back to the main menu. When I persevere, it works eventually, often on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th try. This problem still persists. Weird.

Another odd thing...I watched a TV episode where the picture quality was poor (as though it had been badly encoded). But it improved during the show, and then when I watched it again, it was greatly improved, almost as though it had learned how to decode the program better! Obviously this is irregular, I'm just trying to describe the behaviour as it seemed at the time. This only happened the first time I used it.

I used Fugu to SFTP my files over to the Apple TV, and it worked like a charm.

Anyway, on the whole, I'm happy with the aTV Flash v3.0, although I'm hopeful that a future patch will clean up these issues. I gather from the above-linked thread that some users have found they can't get their Apple TV to work at all after installation...it might be just due to it being an earlier version of the software, and in any event it's worth checking for more recent forum threads to see what the latest situation is if you're considering a purchase.

All other main Apple TV functionality (such as music and photos) remains unaffected, and I haven't played around with the other aTV Flash functionality as yet - such as the browser - as I don't really have a need.

Hope this helps.

++UPDATE: 26 June 2008++

I've discovered that the above problems were caused by using the nitoTV plugin which appears on the main menu. To be fair, it's very new technology. But when I used the Sapphire plugin (also via the main menu), I experienced no problems whatsoever - the content loaded automatically every time, and even used the native UI for pausing, fast forwarding and rewinding content. Win!

++UPDATE: 7 July 2008++

Having used the box for a couple of weeks now, all seems to be well. The exception is that a couple of times the box has crashed when half way through a program, and it restarts automatically. When I restart the program using Sapphire, I can use the native Apple TV controls to fast forward to the right moment very quickly, back where I was about 60 seconds after the problem occured. I've got a feeling this is happening when a program is left as paused for too long before being resumed, and some resource is being used up while in this state.

Other than that, still very happy!

++UPDATE: 13 August 2008++

Have experienced a few minor issues over the past month, such as sudden crashes. Also for some reason, on Sapphire, shows which should have been shown as "viewed" simply dropped off the browser, so I couldn't watch something twice.

But I upgraded both the Apple TV firmware (v2.1) and the aTV Flash software (v3.2.2) at the weekend, and this seems to have resolved the problems. Sadly a full factory restore was needed. Have decided this time to just stream iTunes from my main Mac (rather than a full sync) and obviously this has saved me a large chunk of space - more room for TV and films. The performance seems to have improved slightly (no crashes yet). Oh, and in case you're wondering how to upgrade aTV Flash, you need to sign into the site to get at the link.

All in all, this formerly slightly flakey software is now, dare I say it, pretty much ready for primetime...
________________________
Apple TV version 2.0 (bought in the States, activated in the UK)
Connected to TV over HDMI
iMac G5 1.5gb RAM running Mac OS X 10.4.11
Connected to Apple TV over wireless
BT HomeHub

Supernova 2008

I attended Supernova last week, which I have to say was one of the most interesting and challenging conferences I've attended. Kevin Werbach and his team at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) did a great job bringing in a plethora of interesting speakers and panels.

There was a fair chunk of admin for me though; BT were sponsoring the event, there were five of us attending, and so there were stalls and flights and hotels and couriers and all that malarky to arrange. Having gone to all the hassle of arranging a big stall on the first day, I got the impression it repelled rather than attracted this particularly savvy audience.

Reach up

I guess people assume that Big Telco companies don't have much of interest to say. And I guess this is understandable, given that the disruptive projects in this space (Skype, Grand Central, Android, iPhone) have grabbed all the headlines in recent years. We didn't really get a chance to talk to many people, until we ventured out into the room away from the stall - and once we started talking to people, we got a much better reaction.

And it was great to see this perspective being challenged in the Open Flow track on the Tuesday. JP Rangaswami, the MD of BT Design, gave a talk on how important it is for large companies to adapt to these challenging times, and pointed at Osmosoft (for whom I work) as being an example of what BT is trying to do in this space.

JP

We got a much better reaction on Tuesday night as a result. But I digress.

After JP's slot, there were some great panels in the remaining Open Flow track. Tantek Çelik did a great job moderating the 'Whose Social Graph?' panel, pushing Google, Facebook and Plaxo on how difficult it is to get data out of their platforms (particularly Facebook). What made the discussion even more interesting was that the screen behind the panel was used to show the audience's views on the discussion, via Twitter (using Summize). And then the screen was switched to show this blog post by David Recordon, who was in the audience, criticising Facebook for blocking Google's Friend Connect service. Unbeknownest to him, this was on the screen while Dave Morin of Facebook was talking about their supposedly open policy.

Closed

Things got pretty heated, and eventually Morin refused to comment further other than to say Google's people were talking to Facebook's people, leading to this great tweet from @psd! Dan Farber and Nic Cubrilovic covered the argument in more detail.

My view: Facebook's business model depends heavily on keeping their customer's eyeballs on their site. They can't afford to release social graph data because it threatens their business, but likewise they have to be seen doing something when it comes to sharing data. Like good politicians, they have a consistent response to criticism about data portability; they talk up their privacy concerns. This is bullshit. Up until now, this has been sufficient to maintain traffic to their site. My stance continues to be this; I will maintain a presence on Facebook because my job requires it, but I will not put data in until I know I can get it out again, and I will visit the site as infrequently as possible in the meantime. And I encourage others to do likewise. It hurts the web.

Phew, rant over!

Anyway, another great panel which followed later in the same track was the Bottom-up Distributed Openness panel, with the founders of Microformats, OpenID, OAuth and OEmbed. My takeaway from this session was how these guys and one gal had seen how painful it had been to invoke standards in the W3C, and had generally decided to restrict their initial efforts to a small, closed group to get their standards off the ground. With impressive results. Turns out selective closed-ness is the way forward in certain situations.

And Jeremy Keith kept did a good job keeping things light-hearted with buzzword bingo running in the background. Waddayaknow, when Leah Culver mentioned RSS and Wikis in the same sentence, we got a House!

House

There was plenty more going on during the event, much of it outside the sessions, and way too much to record here. But suffice to say it was one of the best conferences I've been too, and I hope very much to be involved next year.

You can see a full set of photos here.

San Francisco

I've just returned from San Francisco, which I hadn't visited since 2000 (If you'd like a laugh, check out the California Journal I created back then...marvel at the background images! Gasp at the photos downgraded for dial-up! Cringe at the hand-coded html! Etc. etc.). It was a brilliant trip, mainly for work reasons - will post about that in a sec - but also I got the chance to soak up the city.

It's a lovely place, and I really wouldn't mind living there one day. The people are friendly, the weather is (mostly) agreeable, and there's plenty going on. Here are a few snaps from the walk around town.

The Farmer's Market by the Ferry Building was one of the nicest, friendliest markets I've ever visited...

Honey

Exchange

Sale

We went for a great walk up to Coit Tower:

Coit Tower

View South

View North

The Mission is a fab neighbourhood for photos, whether it's the Maracas:

Maracas

...the epic burritos...

Burrito

..or the sensational array of murals...

Robot

Face

Guitar man

Everyone's seen the cable cars of course, but what's amazing is that they grab onto cables which are moving below the street. We saw the machinery that pulls them along:

Subterranean Machinery

Fans of Sean Connery might remember him meeting his daughter at the Palace of Fine Arts in The Rock:

Palace of Fine Arts

And of course there's also the Golden Gate Bridge:

Golden Gate Bridge

As if I hadn't put the camera through too much by then, I was also gifted an amazing view of the city on the flight home:

San Francisco - Bridge and City

The all-too-brief visit was just brilliant. I've got a poor memory of anything prior to 2003. It's not a coincidence that this is when digital photography became practical and affordable. These photos will live with me a long time!

The full set of photos can be seen here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

How to make money from open source

Every now and again, I poke my head out from the echo chamber that is the open source world, and get bombarded with one question. How do you make money from open source?

Many people have answered that question in the past, so consider this a re-heat of last night's dinner, as it were.

Of course, for some open source developers, the very question is offensive. They create open source software for reasons other than financial ones (as described in my previous post). But for others it's an important question, and I for one would like to finesse my response.

The often used answer is that one makes money because of open source, and not with it. Let's unpack this. There are many examples of this being done successfully, such as;
All decent business models. And making money from open source is also possible at the level of the individual as well.
  • Doc Searls makes money talking about open source at conferences and through writing about open source in Linux Journal. He also gets paid for consultancy services. This is interesting from my perspective, as Doc doesn't write code (I am not a developer either).
  • Jeremy Ruston, my boss, made money selling his one-man open source company to BT. Note he didn't sell the code itself; that is held in trust by a not-for-profit outfit called UnaMesa. Even still, the amount exchanged was sufficient to make him happy.
I'm not sure how much this helps the average salesman, though. They're looking for direct ways to make money, not indirect ways. Open source is a hot topic right now, and its inevitable that those charged with bringing in money will ask how open source can help them do that. And these unfamiliar methods of making money might be unsatisfying for those who are new to the topic.

I think that the best answer is to say that there are two possible approaches.

The first is to use open source as an enabler. Rather than asking how you'd make money with an open source product, look at your existing and upcoming business opportunities and figure out whether open source can play a role in them. The benefits of reduced costs and improved flexibility might make all the difference.

The second is to put open source at the heart of your business model. To attempt this, you'd really need to get under the skin of open source; understand how the community works, understand the unique benefits of open source and how it's changing the world, and then try and identify new business models in the same vein as those listed above. It's not straightforward, but it could be lucrative.

In this day and age, where commoditized open source solutions are leading their respective fields, it's incumbent on the salesmen of large companies to get their heads around open source, so they can understand in turn where the opportunities lie. With their knowledge of the market and commercial acumen, they may just hold the key to the next wildly successful business built using open source.

Photo shared under a Creative Commons licence by WhatKnot.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Building a Developer Community

Many companies say they want to build communities, but take completely the wrong approach. They say something like 'If You Build It They Will Come'. This might be true in certain rare instances, but for the rest of us there is much to do to improve the odds of success.

There are numerous books out there that explain how to build communities, but not so many explaining how to build a developer community. These communities are more sensitive and enigmatic than, say, Digg-like communities, and I think they're more interesting too. We're talking about a class of community that can conjure up something completely new from your tools, which represents an intriguing path to innovation.

So here are some guidelines to consider. There's no guarantee they'll work, but I can guarantee that, the better these are implemented, the higher the chance that the community will form with unforeseen benefits. There are several planets you have to push into alignment, and then you have to keep them there. So here goes:

1. Might seem obvious, but figure out why you're building the community in the first place. Is it just to improve adoption? Improve credibility? Improve quality? Develop an ecosystem of support? Whatever it is, figure this out and make sure everyone on your team knows and agrees. Try and hang some rudimentary metrics off the targets, so you can track progress and take course corrections.

2. Get ready to relinquish control of your product. The most successful communities form around things they can influence and help drive. The more control you hand over, the more chance your community will form, and the more chance someone will come up with an idea you haven't thought of. I'll say it again: Give away as much as your business can handle.

3. Consider the motivations of the community. Most developers are driven by some or all of the following: (a) a desire to be creative, (b) a desire to share, (c) a desire to make a living. Let's look at these in more detail.

3a. The desire to be creative. Consider the nature of what you're handing over. Is it obvious what it should be used for? Or has it been designed to be used in all sorts of interesting ways? If you were a creative type, would you rather have access to this:










Or this?










Try to design products that can be used in as many ways as possible. Make it interoperable and extendable, so it can be combined with other products. Open source and open standards are the way forward. Just having an api doesn't count on its own; the quality of the api itself and the supporting documentation can make the difference between success and failure. For webby projects, see REST.

3b. The desire to share. Software is abundant; easy to copy and reuse. In this environment, hoarding just doesn't make sense. The best way to get the respect of your peers is by demonstrating your prowess in your chosen profession. If you're creating a community, make it as easy as possible for developers (and potential users) to share their work and for others to find it. Help developers to find each, and work together, and then get the hell out of the way.

3c. The desire to make a living. By giving people a platform to demonstrate their creativity and skill, you improve their employment prospects. Also, there's the tantalising prospect of acquisition (see 6, below).

4. Learn humility. You need the community much more than they'll ever need you. Someday, if you behave the right way for a long period of time, they will start to trust you and treat you as their moral leader. Even then you'll still need them more than they need you. You are the servant of the community, and thinking this way will drive all sorts of appropriate behaviour. And if you're experiencing friction with the community further down the path, there's a good chance you've forgotten this guideline.

5. Choose your language carefully. Avoid using terminology such as 'managing', 'exploiting' or 'owning' the community. Chastise your colleagues for doing so. You don't 'own' anyone or anything, not even your product (if you've done it right), regardless of what the licence terms say. Respect needs to be ingrained in your corporate culture. Once you've established the community framework, the only thing you can manage is your relationship with the community. Use words like 'influence', 'support' and 'help'.

6. Feedback loops shouldn't just be bootstrapped onto your service or product, they must be built into the core. Resources should be allocated to this, and fiercely protected. They are your ambassadors. Your best people should be involved. It is your top priority, regardless of whether you've hit critical mass or not. If someone has a question, you'll need to be well positioned to immediately jump on the opportunity to give as much help as they'll take. Let your people develop personal relationships with community members. Let them meet in real life, and be ready to pay for the beer. Be ready to relinquish control over your staff as well as your product.

7. Be ready to change your product. The responsiveness outlined above is perhaps the most important responsibility when running a community, especially so in the early days. And if you're a large company, and like many large companies you're struggling to innovate, this relationship puts you in a unique position. From here, you can observe what people are doing with your tools, so you can improve them quickly in response. Build the products with this quick 'reconfigurability' in mind. And from this vaunted position, you can also identify innovative ideas that you can learn from, and possibly swoop in with an acquisition offer before your competitors get wind of it.

Does this sound predatory? Then consider the facts that developers (a) deserve to get paid like everyone else (b) might want to be acquired (c) might need the support to really get their idea off the ground and (d) have the option to turn down the offer. But don't be too surprised if the developer is offended by your overtures; for some developers, money isn't an incentive and their passion for the technology is more akin to a religion than a business.

8. Ship a quality product. If you think the developer community is going to finish your job for you, you're in for an unpleasant shock. Don't use a beta release as a reason to ship a product that's either incomplete or full of bugs. If you do this, you'll lose any credibility you may have with the developer community, and they won't come back a second time. In this day and age, there is no excuse for not building in quality as you go along.

9. Details *really* matter. If you're about to make a change to a product, service or community, no matter how small, make sure the community is cool with this. Without spamming forums, you still need to be sure the important people find out and can respond. If you're lucky, and you've done a good job creating the feedback loops, the community will tell you what they think. Lucky you.

10. When you've made a decision, explain it. Your explanation should stand on it's own; don't just point at a conversation - actually spell out the logic and the feedback that has led to your decision. Again, do so on the same forums as before. You owe the community that much.

11. Give some thought as to the most appropriate tools that the community is familiar with - don't force them to move the conversation over to your shiny new platform. You need to relinquish control over the conversation as well as the product itself. If you've followed the other points, there's nothing to be scared about. There are perfectly adequate tools out there such as getsatisfaction, Google Groups, Twitter, Facebook (which sucks, of course, but your audience might still be there), Soureforge, Trac, blogging software, simple mailing lists and so on. Anything that smells like BigCo might put off potential community members.

12. Be ready to provide financial support. Obviously, this depends on your budget and project, but it needn't be expensive. It could simply involve buying community contributor Bob the latest Nvidia card so he can write drivers, or paying for Manuela to attend a conference so she can talk about the project. Having the feedback loops mentioned above should help you spot these opportunities to develop ambassadors outside your organisation.

So all this should be considered nothing more than a general introduction; if you're charged with building your own community, I'd recommend you conduct some more in-depth studies to improve your chances. I can recommend reading the Cathedral and the Bazaar and Here Comes Everybody, and JP recommends reading Community Building on the Web. If you've got anything to add to this list of guidelines, or the list of the best books, please add them in the comments. Thanks!

Photos shared under a Creative Commons licence by Flickr users baboon and atomicShed.