Friday, 25 April 2008

VRM TiddlyWiki

Don't you hate the fact that you always have to do business with vendors on their terms? Fill in their form, scan their website, suffer their adverts?

Wouldn't it be better if you could relate to them on your terms?

Well, that's the enlightening, empowering and lofty ambition that VRM hopes to fulfill.

Paul Downey and I attended the VRM 2008 conference in Munich this week, and presented our early thinking on the subject, using Getting Married as the basis of a case study. Paul's slides can be found here, and I followed him by pitching the concept of using TiddlyWiki to create and distribute a 'Personal RFP' (Request for Proposal), as well as exploring the notion of bringing brokers into the mix.

The TiddlyWiki file in question can be seen here (I recommend right clicking the link and saving to desktop before opening from there), and I've since created this video explaining the rationale behind this theory:

A higher resolution copy can be downloaded from here.

I'm interested in finding people who'd like to explore this initiative with me, particularly those from potential brokers e.g. Yell, Google, Yahoo! and other directory services or search engine operators. Likewise if I'm missing something, do please put me straight! If you'd like to get in touch, please do so via the comments!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Next Identity

I've just returned from the 2nd European Identity Conference in Munich, elated and frustrated in equal measure....the main conference itself was infuriating (for reasons I'll go into), but the VRM sessions taking place beforehand were some of the most thought provoking I've been involved in.

The VRM project is still at an early stage, with a small group of committed folks exploring what it could mean and how it should work, as well as the most effective way to gain adoption.

So how does VRM manifest itself? Efforts seem to fall into one of two approach vectors; thin vertical markets (such as owning my search history, or selectively sharing my contact details) and the broader concept of a "Personal RFP" (stating your requirements for vendors to consider).

For our part of the unconference, Paul Downey and I explored the Personal RFP concept, using Getting Married as a case study. I'm going to cover this in a future blog post, but suffice to say for now I was relieved not to get booed out of the room...!

As for gaining adoption, the project team isn't in a huge hurry. It's more important that the right people get involved now, at the foundation stage, than for the wrong people to get involved for the wrong reasons. It means that proper consideration can be given to the hallmarks and mechanisms of VRM, being explored using case studies such as the Personal Address Manager.

But there is a fascinating and powerful idea being mooted within the project team; the notion of a "relbutton". It's an icon that can indicate your willingness to engage with a vendor on your terms, or vice versa. The icon in it's main state is shown on the left, Doc Searl's slide deck introducing the subject can be seen here (see slide 11), and the concept is outlined on the VRM wiki. I think it's a great way to communicate your allegiance to the VRM cause, and I liken it to those rubber wrist bands that charities often sell.

As for the EIC conference proper, well, where do I start? It was a jarring experience moving from enlightening VRM to the cludge that is corporate identity management. Ariel Gordon of France Telecom tried to sell a "user centric approach" that was tantamount to keeping customers on a slightly longer leash. And Dave Kearns implied that, if we treat everyone like criminals, then we improve our chances of catching someone acting like one. Bear in mind that these were keynote speakers, and there was no opportunity to challenge these points of view in Q&A afterwards.

It just goes to show what a shot in the arm VRM is. I'm really excited to get involved at this relatively early stage, and keen to attend some of the London sessions which are coming up.

Incidentally, it rained for much of our visit but that didn't stop us taking photos when it was dry - here's a set of photos on Flickr.

Monday, 21 April 2008


Originally uploaded by Phillie Casablanca
Not just a very cool mirror robot sculpture, but also an opportunity to see what Flickr videos look like on my blog...!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Future of Web Design

Even though the Future of Web Design conference had inherited it's forward-looking moniker from Carsonified's brand, it still had a lot to live up to. Last year's Future of Web Apps conference was one of the year's best. And I was wondering; what new web design techniques are coming about?

It lived up to the billing, just about. The morning sessions were more suited to a conference called 'An Introduction to Web Design', as Steve Pearce (Poke) and Andy Budd (Clearleft), among others, spelled out the basics. I considered myself pretty fortunate, having worked at LBi and seen much best practice being adopted first hand, but I agreed with most of what was being said.

The afternoon sessions were considerably more useful. Elliott Jay Stocks put web design into context, with reference to print design and the art world in general. Jon Hicks gave an excellent (and highly entertaining) tutorial on how to design and build a standards compliant, cross-browser tested website from scratch. And Daniel Burka (of Digg and Pownce fame) wrapped things with a common sense approach to designing maintainable websites - this slide reflected the general mood.

So where does the future of web design lie? No-one specifically answered this question. But my feeling is that the future lies with best practice becoming standard practice amongst web developers. With the proliferation of cheap or free tools making the building of web sites easier and easier (such as Django, Ruby-on-Rails, and cloud computing), the need increases for best practice to be shared and understood by those outside the design community. For that reason alone, I'm sure that there were many people at the conference today who got more out of it than I ever could.

I've uploaded a set of photos here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

My identity. Let me show you it.

Paul Downey and I are going to be filling in for JP at the 2nd European Identity Conference in Munich next week. The part of the conference we'll be involved in concerns VRM, and the format will be an unconference. So rather than broadcasting a presentation, we're aiming to stimulate debate.

To make it interesting, we're going to get engaged. And then explore whether VRM can help us organise the special day. Hopefully it won't all end in a messy divorce...

Monday, 14 April 2008

VRM: Here comes the customer

I've been thinking a lot about VRM lately. Not so much about what it means, but rather the mechanism of how it can work.

If you're new to VRM, it can be summarised like this: it's the reciprocal of CRM. Rather than being bombarded with advertising, much of which is irrelevant, and the rest irritating, wouldn't it be nice if you could just tell vendors what you want, on your terms? Without even going to the trouble of looking for them? If they're willing and able to respond, they do so. Everyone else goes on their merry way. It's all about sharing the data you want with the people you want.

Some examples from Doc Searls (Cluetrain Manifesto dude), who heads up the VRM project, include:
I want to:

- Buy a power convertor near St.Paul's in the next three hours, at any price
- Buy a stroller for twins near Highway 70 in Kansas today for under $300
- Buy an Apple laptop with a 500gb HDD and weighs under five pounds, as soon as it comes out
- Buy a double decaf cappuccino at the next exit on this highway

(You can see more examples presented by Doc on this photo)

There are a few big problems that need solving. Filtering is one (both on the outbound request and the way back in), targeting is another (how do you choose which vendor to share your data with?), organisation is a third (by what mechanism do customers agree to share their data, and in what form, while retaining control over it?).

I'm wondering whether the following solution might have some mileage.

Possible solution

I'm wondering whether most of the problems could be solved by defining the terms by which we, the customers, could engage with brokers that we chose. Brokers = any directory service which is willing to accept the data on our terms. After all, the likes of Google, Yell, Yahoo! and Thompson already have a relationship with thousands of vendors. We could offer to share our wish list with e.g. Yell, on the grounds that they'll pass it onto vendors who meet our criteria, and gather / return the results.

How brokers manage the relationship with the vendors is their challenge, but they'd have a vested interest in ensuring a high quality response to the customer - otherwise the custom will go elsewhere. As for their motives, I imagine brokers could make money out of this by agreeing with vendors which customer queries are forwarded onto them, perhaps based on keyword. Maybe this could work in the same way as Google Adwords, where vendors pay to have ads next to chosen search terms, only instead they get carefully targetted, customer-generated requests.

The customer could receive a confirmation that their request has been passed onto x vendors. Responses could be penalised if they don't match the request, rather like Amazon encourages customers to rate sellers in their marketplace. Low scores are punished, to prevent spamming.

The number and quality of the responses would be poor to start with, as customers might not be too good at defining their requirements, and vendors try to game the system. But like any new system, the filters would improve over time improving the system for all.

Obvious problems

1. Hosting the original data is a problem, because customer control is one of the keys to success. Maybe TiddlyWiki could help with this? Data could be held locally, new brokers could be managed via plugin, and data can be sent / retrieved via RSS. And it passes the 'open standards' litmus test.

2. Defining the form of the customer's request is problematic. From the above list, we've already seen that requests can be incredibly wide-ranging. At minimum, a free text field is required for the bulk of the query. But I think tags should play a part (as this would make the broker's life easier, matching tags with the terms they've 'sold' to vendors). And time / location / radius probably need to be defined to some degree, to help tighten the request and responses.

I don't know much about establishing standards. My erstwhile colleague Paul Downey, on the other hand, represents BT at the W3C and thus knows a bit about standards. He sez this will be a hard problem to crack, and he's probably right. Big question: to what extent would we, the customers, allow brokers to help create this standard?

My view is this problem needs to be overcome before VRM can move forward, regardless of whether brokers are involved.

But why bother? Well...

Who wins?

Everybody wins. The customer gets carefully considered responses to their request, with minimal effort. The broker gets paid by the vendor for the targeted information. And the vendor can spend more money dealing with useful leads rather than on frivolous, scattergun advertising.

Incidentally, I'm convinced that VRM will be here one day. Customers' ability to organise themselves is only going to increase over time, as social tools become more powerful and elegant (quick nod of the head to Clay Shirky). It's a question of when, not if, this power will eventually fall into customer's hands.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Editing files in Final Cut Express

My previous two posts about combining files (particularly including screencasts) from different sources in Final Cut Express continue to get quite a lot of traffic, so I'm posting another tip today.

As previously covered, for best results you want to make sure that the project settings (frame rate, pixel count, aspect ratio) are applied to the FCE project at the start, and also apply to all incoming files and (usually) exported movies.

But what if you've found that incoming content is in the wrong format? And you don't have the chance to re-shoot? Even if aspect ratio and frame rate is correct, the wrong pixel count can trash the video. I've come across a slap-your-forehead solution to amending incoming footage to the right format.

The solution is to do a screencast of the problematic footage! Simply set Snapz Pro X (or whatever screen capture tool you're using) to the same settings as your project, and play the problematic file in the background. If you've used Snapz Pro X to capture your initial file, it'll be pixel perfect and it doesn't matter whether the pixels and frames line up. If it's video footage, you'll need to worry about the sound - and you might need to import the old and new footage into FCE, deleting just the old video track and doing some lining up. To avoid this I'd suggest you set the project settings at the same settings as the video footage (the easy setup settings will probably allow this), and then just worry about screencast / other footage.

Hope that helps someone out there!