Friday, 28 March 2008

The Political Web

Its about ten years since the internet itself became a mainstream political issue. But I've noticed a recent change for the better. Leading politicians are no longer saying that they understand the web; they're showing that they understand it by using it properly.

First off, the two remaining Democratic Presidential hopefuls, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are on Twitter (the Republican nominee, John McCain, has an unofficial twitter stream written in the third person = FAIL). I just love the thought of the President potentially twittering from the Oval Office! Seriously, I wouldn't put it past Obama to continue his Twitter presence were he to get in. Let's not kid ourselves; every word that comes out of all three campaign machines is carefully chosen, "on message", and almost certainly ghost-written but tweets like this one give hint to the human being behind the facade. Long may it continue.

Incidentally, Bill Clinton's parody twitter stream is more entertaining than Hillary's real one...

Meanwhile closer to home, No.10 Downing Street not only has a presence on Twitter, but has also started a Flickrstream. It's always been possible to have a dialogue with TPTB, but hey now it's made available the way I like. And I can publicly hold them accountable, on my terms, with virtually no effort. Amazing, really! I wonder if this is a party initiative, or if it would continue if the Tories win the next election?

Separately, if you're from the UK and haven't checked out theyworkforyou.com, it's well worth a look. It's a phenomenal resource. I just used it to find out loads about my MP that I didn't know about, including his first speech in Parliament and every word he's uttered there since then. And I'll now be contacted when he talks about issues I care about.

In government, much as we find in the Enterprise, there will always be examples of individuals using the web well, and those who aren't quite as enlightened. The unfortunate demise of the Civil Serf blog comes to mind. But so long as there are people in government using the web well, we should encourage and support them.

Decentralised Cybersecurity

There have been plenty of articles written about the centralisation of U.S. Intelligence after the 9/11 attacks, arguing back and forth whether this was a sensible reaction. I've been taking a keen interest in decentralisation at Enterprise level, and it's interesting to see the same problems being tackled at a government level. Which is why I found this Ars Technica article, about the new U.S. head of cybersecurity so fascinating.

At Enterprise level, one management responsibility is to look for evidence that the organisational structure is failing, and take steps to correct it. But what kind of evidence should one look for? Stock price is one example, although some might argue the problem should've been spotted before shares take a tumble. I suspect in many cases the effect of poor organisation will be gradual, and will manifest themselves in less obvious ways, such as failure to innovate, or poor time to market, or a drop in sales. Note these problems might make it obvious that a problem exists, but tying the problem back to organisational structure - and finding a solution - is altogether more difficult.

But, blimey, the stakes couldn't be higher for the U.S. cybersecurity community. It's fascinating that they've hired a proponent of decentralised management (presumably the decentralised nature of the web has a lot to do with it) and it'll be fascinating to track his progress. One thing's for sure; organisational failure in this area could be both quick and public.

(Photo "black hats" from BitHead's flickrstream, with thanks)

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Breathing our own exhaust

I've just come across this delightful expression which doesn't seem to be that widespread (at least I hadn't heard it before today, although I gather it's been around for a while), but which perfectly captures much of the dialogue within the following groups:
  • Fans of open standards
  • Fans of open source
  • Fans of Linux
  • Fans of blogging
  • Fans of experience design
  • Fans of any religion
  • Fans of any political school of thought
  • Fans of any sports team
Now don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of the first five myself. A big fan. But I frequently see people in these groups (myself included) falling into the misconception that, because the people who are listening are agreeing with us, that our points of view are gaining traction, adoption and understanding.

It's not a technology thing. It's human nature to surround yourself with like minded people. It's nice and cozy thinking that you're in the right.

So what's the point of this post? Only to say that we should be mindful of breathing our own exhaust, and perhaps our efforts and energy should be focused towards those who don't yet understand, or believe, or even know what we're on about. There are plenty of people out there who still think blogging is a passing fad, and who haven't even heard of, say, open source. We still have work to do. Tell a friend - don't be shy!

btw, I was thinking of calling this blog post "Self-congratulatory, mutual masturbatory"...I was rather pleased with that, and didn't want it to go to waste, so it finds a home here in the post itself.

And I quite like the irony of using a blog post to talk about how bloggers persuade other bloggers how great blogging is!

(Photo from trevor3999's flickrstream)

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Linux on the desktop

I found Andrew Back's semi-rant about Linux on the desktop thought provoking. Back in 2003, in an idle moment, I contemplated starting a business based on helping small-to-medium sized businesses to deploy Linux on the desktop (hereinafter just "Linux"). And a friendly, highly competent, Linux-hugging sys admin guy I know (who shall remain nameless) said that "it's not ready for prime time". It stopped me dead in my tracks. Surely if he didn't think it was ready for prime time then I must be missing something?

There were a few key problems with Linux back then. Usability was an issue. Ease of switching was an issue. Choice was an issue.

So have the last five years made a difference?

Sure they have. Projects such as Ubuntu have a strong focus on usability now, and there have been big improvements as a result. Presumably the underlying code has improved. And yet there has been no great increase in usage.

In the same period, Apple is slowly gnawing into Microsoft's domination in the desktop market (hitting 6% in 2007 according to Wired, up from 3% in 2003). Why?

Also in the same period, an appetite for quality open source products such as Firefox and, to a lesser extent, VLC has developed, but not for Linux. Why?

Contrary to Mr.Back's views, I don't think the lack of device drivers is preventing people from switching to Linux. I don't hear many people saying that they'd switch if only they knew their devices would be supported. This is a red herring. It's something more fundamental than that. The problem is that most people still don't know or like Linux.

People (other than geeks) don't like learning new stuff, especially new computer programs if they can possibly help it. The exception to the rule: they will consider switching to an experience which is obviously more enjoyable or productive, and simple to grasp. Mac OS X is not only all three, but also this can be appreciated at a glance. It sells itself. People are keen to show their friends - both getting pleasure from the reaction. It's viral.

I'm not just talking about eye-candy here. The elements within Mac OS X that are pleasing on the eye have a primary purpose: productivity. Look at Exposé, or the Genie Effect, or dock magnification. They help you find what you're looking for quickly. The fact they look nice too is secondary.

Before this turns into a usability critique of Linux on the desktop, let's get back on track...

Linux has a long way to catch up with Apple and even Microsoft (Ow! Who threw that?) when it comes to overall usability. It would require a group of people to not only take responsibility for the usability of the OS (as the Ubuntu team have done so ably), but also responsibility for the over-arching usability, experience and inter-operability of all the apps that the target group would use. And I don't just mean bundling OpenOffice with your operating system. Case study: iLife. It isn't good enough that there are open source alternatives for iPhoto, or iTunes - if you want people to switch they've got to be better, and not just a little bit.

Of course, Apple's image has contributed to their success. But their recent success didn't run parallel to a change in image, which has remained pretty consistent throughout. That said, the image of Linux is bloody confusing to anyone taking an interest for the first time.

For Linux to break into the mainstream, I think it first needs to find a niche to carve out. And I think that niche is a particular type of business user. The type of business user who only needs an email client and a browser to get their job done. Ubuntu + Firefox (maybe using Google Docs) + Thunderbird (email client) is a solid suite, so start from there, consolidate, and then grow. The people using Linux in the workplace might - just might - make it their first choice at home too.

Let's accept that Linux isn't for everyone and stop calling it a battle. With patience and focus it will gradually become the OS of choice for a growing, vocal group of happy users (other than developers). And who knows where it might go from there?

Incidentally, I think OpenOffice should be treated as a prototype - throw it away and start again, and this time don't copy Microsoft Office 2000. Carve out a niche. Just my $0.02.

Disclaimer: I'm a Mac user and an open source fan. I'd love Linux to be good enough for me to switch to and am keen to support initiatives to improve Linux. I'd happily make the move to Linux if the combined hardware and software was better than Apple. Yes, really.

(Photo from MaxPa's flickrstream)

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Evolution of Working Practices a.k.a Managing Without Managers

Twelve or so years of formal project management have taken their toll! Before joining Osmosoft, I was mainly familiar with standard leadership protocol. Tasks and objectives were mapped out in detail and, if things weren't going well, they were micro-managed to completion.

Which is why some of the new ideas I'm being exposed to while here at Osmosoft are so refreshing. JP (my bosses' boss) talks about managing commitments rather than micro-managing people. Thanks to Jon Lister, I've read the fascinating and controversial paper by Ricardo Semlar, whose company in Brazil is managed from the bottom up. There's the Wisdom of Crowds, where we learn about how information at the coal face is best processed and reacted to at the coal face (rather than by an executive 15 levels up the management chain). And now we're observing how innovation can happen in the open source space. A lot of food for thought.

Also relevant is the feeling of antipathy that exists towards project managers (all managers?) here at BigCo. I've worked closely and successfully - often pleasurably! - with developers for many years, so it was a surprise to find that (project) managers here are viewed with, at best, suspicion, and occasionally with vitriol. Not all that surprising, though, when I hear the stories about how project managers have occasionally behaved here in the past. Less said, best left.

Anyway, I don't want to be a project manager here. What I've been charged with is the experimental creation of an environment where projects practically run themselves. Where coordination and cooperation occur with the minimum of effort on management's part. Where conditions lend themselves to innovation and inspiration.

While enjoying the benefits that such a system could bring, it's worth touching on the luxuries we don't have. We don't have the luxury of writing poor code. Independent open sourcerers can and do write poor code sometimes, and it just gets ignored. We don't have the luxury of writing our code in a vacuum (which would defeat the object of our existence), we need to collaborate with the open source community. One of our mantras is "adoption through reuse", with everything that comes with it. We also don't have the luxury of not making or keeping commitments, whether internal or external. So how do we create an environment where this "just happens"?

Part of the answer is a change from tracking tasks to tracking commitments. Built into these commitments will be language pointing at quality controls and liaison with the community. Prioritisation will take place between people affected by incoming commitments. The main input from the team's leader will be to provide mentoring and guidance on prioritisation where needed. Team members are at liberty to not make commitments, although expectations about their other output will go up rapidly as a result.

My hope is that our experimental system will take a lot of the stress out of my job. And will have the added bonus of providing team members with the protection and space needed to get on and do their jobs (pushing back on making new commitments when they already have a full plate). Let's see!

(Photo taken by aussiegall)

Friday, 7 March 2008

BlogTalk wash-up

We attended BlogTalk in Cork earlier this week, and it wasn't half bad. We were running a stall again, handing out copies of RippleRap, and were pleased this time to get a chance to demo it on stage (along with TiddlyWiki). This time the demo Gods were kind and benevolent, and the demo worked throughout, including the one which showcased the BT SDK!

The sessions were a mixed bunch. Some (such as Nova Spivack's semantic web talk) were brilliant, and others (such as Mark Bernstein's talk on "Neovictorian, nobitic, and narrative: ancient anticipations and the meaning of weblogs") were largely impenetrable. The event was well organised though.

The best thing was the quality of people in attendance. We had a steady stream of interesting people visiting the stall, such as this guy running OS X on his Thinkpad and writing his thesis in TiddlyWiki. Another, Salim Ismail (entrepreneur and former CEO of the Yahoo! Brickhouse), is keen to use RippleRap with one of his products. It occurred to me afterwards that, having got all these people in one place, it would've been great if we'd torn up the agenda at the start and gone with a barcamp / unconference style event.

Photos are up on Flickr! And of course you can still download the session notes, flickr photos, tweets and blog posts about the event by downloading the BlogTalk edition of RippleRap...

Well, that didn't last long

Hmph. One minute I'm claiming this is the most exciting news so far this year, and then this happens. Honestly, you wait all year for an exciting story and then two come along at once....

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Fire Eagle Has Landed

After many moons and much fanfare, Fire Eagle, the new location service from Yahoo!, was launched today (in development beta, at least). I'd been really looking forward to this, because they're tackling a bloody hard problem, and it was looking as though they'd cracked it.

Expectations and hopes were very high. Location Based Services (LBS) have been the holy grail for mobile telcos and web developers for a long time. Many have tried and all have failed.

The first big problem with LBS is finding a reliable way to plot location to within a few feet. And this explains why, up until recently, finding an LBS solution has been a mobile telco problem; after all, your mobile phone follows you around. It's this degree of accuracy that can bring really useful information, such as guiding you to a cashpoint. But very few mobile devices have GPS, and the telco companies can usually only figure out where your nearest cell tower is (called a Cell ID) which could be miles away. Triangulation is a non-starter because you'd need line of sight and clear weather between you and the towers to makes assumptions about distance based on signal strength.

The second big problem is privacy. Most people have a complex answer to the question "Who do you want to know where you are?", and it depends on unpredictable, ever changing circumstance.

So when I saw Tom Coates (of BBC and now Yahoo! Brickhouse fame) demo Fire Eagle at FOWA last October, it seemed to handle both problems really elegantly.

First, it accepts location data from just about anywhere including the aforementioned Cell ID and GPS, a texted postcode from a phone, a known wi-fi hotspot I come into range of, my entering a location on a web page, via a Facebook app - demo photo here), with new location factoring methods welcomed. Fire Eagle takes all the location data you throw at it, will plot location on a map as best it can (regardless of accuracy), and share that with whatever application you choose. And the service will improve as new and better location input capabilities are invented and added. If I want to broadcast my specific location, I can find a way to do so, and Cell ID can pick up the rest of my movements.

Second, the privacy settings looked great. They've given this a lot of thought, and there were several very simple controls for selecting when you'd want to share your location (with dead easy ways to stop sharing immediately). The nicest feature I saw was being able to select a region which, when entered, your location would be set at town or borough level. So e.g. no-one knows exactly where you live.

I found out this afternoon from Salim Ismail (former CEO of the Yahoo! Brickhouse) that they'd had to rebuild much of the Fire Eagle service from scratch relatively recently, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Here's a couple of screenshots (click to big - and there are a couple more on Flickr):

Home page

















Upload your location
















Much of the functionality seen at FOWA isn't available yet, they've decided to release it so that developers can play with it. It's a shame the privacy features didn't make the cut for this beta release. I can temporarily hide my location though, so at least that's something. I also think it's a bit of a shame that they didn't launch with any of the application widgets live, although I guess that will change soon. I imagine they were under huge pressure to hit this delivery date, especially due to the current climate.

But the HUGE plus point is that, finally, developers can get their mucky paws all over it. I can't wait to see what people come up with. Yahoo! have taken an incredibly complicated problem, and come up with a simple, engaging solution (assuming the FOWA functionality eventually makes the cut). And it looks gorgeous as well. Every single Telco in the world has tried this, spending probably billions of US$ in the process, and the Brickhouse team have come up with the goods.

I think this is the most exciting development to happen in our space so far this year. What do you think?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

RippleRap Part II - Son of RippleRap.com

We've arrived safely (although in my case, shivering and shaking on the plane - not cool) in Cork, ready for BlogTalk 2008, and I'm chuffed to report that much more RippleRap functionality made the cut than was previously expected.

The BlogTalk edition of RippleRap can be downloaded from RippleRap.com. Even if you're not at the event, you can still follow what's going on by downloading the product and opening the html file.

So now, all in one place, RippleRap provides:
  • A place to manage and share your conference notes
  • Several feeds of event-specific material including tweets, blog posts and flickr photos
  • A Twitter client, including your own timeline with friends
  • Agenda and speaker details / biographies
  • All in a single html file, all still functional when conference wi-fi goes down!
I know that some people who read the blog are keen to use this functionality for their own events. You're welcome to download the BlogTalk edition, see the functionality, and pick apart the code if you're in a hurry. Check out the backstage area (link at the top of the screen), and you'll see we've created an agenda builder. We'll be focusing on the event itself for the next couple of days (we're running a stall and giving one of the presentations), but when we get back we'll focus on producing screencasts and the like to help people get up and running. We've also decided to offer free hosting for collecting aggregating and distributing the shared notes, and will be creating build scripts to make this as straightforward as possible. All delivery times to be decided once the dust has settled later this week.

So, most of the credit for the development work goes to Phil Hawksworth, Paul Downey and Jon Lister. Gentlemen, I salute you.