Monday, 23 February 2009

The Cloud's Silver Lining

Without going into detail, I recently had to replace my laptop and decided that this was about the time to make the jump to a Netbook (specifically an Acer Aspire One 8GB SSD with Linux - yep, just before the new 10" model comes out).

Now I've lost laptops to various catastrophes in the past and every time has been an extremely stressful experience. This outing, however, was different - for about a year I've been regularly backing up (using rsync) all my files to a home server and storing my photos, music, etc on that.

So, I was confident that most of my data was safe but what really surprised me was how simple it was to return back to a full working setup because of the way I've gradually shifted to the cloud. In the past getting Outlook (with it's Calendar, Email and Contacts) working has been a significant part of the hassle. Using Gmail and other services meant that once I'd set up the web and opened Firefox I was 90% of the way back to normality.

Switching away from Windows was straight forward as well (I already dual-booted Ubuntu and XP but used Windows more often than not) but with Firefox installed, once I'd got Skype and Pidgin on board there was little left to do.

This whole episode has illustrated to me just how different a working environment the cloud is and underlines how the PC is becoming a host for the browser (and therefore the web). By far the most annoying aspect of having to move to a new machine was the loss of all the Chrome saved passwords (and, of course, Chrome itself which hasn't yet made it to Linux properly).

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Potential of Latitude

In case you're not aware, Google have launched a new product - Latitude - which falls firmly into the 'building block' category of services. The core product lets you share you location (updated manually or via a google maps application) with select Google contacts.

An interesting feature of the Google Maps application is that it will stay resident on your device, updating your location in real time. Scary stalking and surveillance opportunities aside, the general idea is that you can see which of your contacts are near to you now.

I mentioned in my 10 predictions for 2009 that I think location will be important this year and Latitude is a good indicator that net access on the move will be a key area for service development. The current application doesn't really catch the imagination but the combination with Twitter-like services (and, of course, a level of ambiguity about where exactly you are) provides some really interesting possibilities.

One thing that really struck me when playing with Latitude is the huge impact automatic updating makes - suddenly the service goes from a point of interest to a useful way of seeing who's actually nearby right now.

Leading on from this, I realised the impact that having Latitude on might have on your mobile phone bill - and how important unlimited (or virtually unlimited) data plans will be for these kind of services. At the moment networks charge astronomic amounts for very low levels of data use (Orange charges me from £4 for 4MB up to £88.13(!) for a gigabyte).

Ubiquitous computing requires not only a high level of connectivity (through whatever available means) but also a low enough cost threshold for entry. The iPhone's £30/month for 'unlimited' data is a pretty good start but, until most plans provide this kind of feature, services like Latitude will never reach their full potential.

And of course, as soon as a proper Mobile Broadband service that can compete with ADSL (at least for those for whom web surfing is the key usage) is available then we may well see the death of the traditional Home phone line...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Facebook Breaks the Social Media Social Contract

It seems that Facebook's attempt to revise it's T&Cs has resulted in a rapid backtrack. Admitedly, Zuckerberg and his team seem to have handled this well - going straight back to the community to discuss issues rather than sticking with the "Well, it's our site" line. In the past - particularly with the redesign issue - the community's voice went unheard but with this particular issue Facebook has promised to listen to everyone.

It's interesting to draw contrasts between this situation and the OCLC response - essentially both revolve around rights issues but in the case of OCLC there's money - and a client/provider relationship - involved and that's not true of Facebook. The money in Facebook comes through advertising and not (directly) from the user.

Facebook - like many similar Web 2.0 services - is 'free'. Free software evangelists talk about "Free as in speech, not as in beer" and Facebook (and the ilk) are closer to the free beer than free speech. Although, of course, free access doesn't mean that there's no cost to users in terms of attention.

In addition, Facebook has something more complex; an implied relationship which is directly contradicted by Terms and Conditions - a kind of Social Contract for Social Media. Only when there's an attempt to enforce, change or highlight the 'actual' rules does this implicit set of responsibilities come out.

For better or worse, people have extended the Google mantra of 'Don't be evil' to other web companies. Rights grabbing and restrictions are expected of 'old' leviathans like Microsoft and (to some extent) Apple - often far more than they actually deserve.

Google may own pretty much everything we do in their part of the cloud but how many people really expect them to do anything about it? And what would the reaction to a (truly) evil act be?

Friday, 6 February 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the sidebar...

A few days ago I decided to go back to trying Twitter after ditching it when they dropped SMS updates. Prior to this Twitter was useful to me as a kind of passive group messaging service among friends - a way to give presence information out into the ether and see what came back.

I did try and keep using it post-SMS but it never really had the same attraction, and I watched from the sidelines as it became more and more popular with net and non-net 'celebs'. My decision to give it another go has been hard thought, I've seen several blogs turn down hill as well-thought out posts give out to a stream of consciousness series of tweeted links and "on the train" type comments. 

So why go back? Well I have gradually begun to understand that that 'passive group messaging' function is still just as useful in a work environment. With Twitter, it's not necessarily about conversation (although it can be) and more about the quick and easy posting of thoughts and statuses. Ok, some are totally useless for some followers but they're aimed at others and they are - most importantly - easy to ignore.

One of the reasons I hear for people using Twitter (or Jaiku or Yammer or one of the other similar services) is that it forgoes the question 'what do you do?'. I tend to meet a fair number of people who work in ways which are non-traditional, who scowl when people say "You work in a Library? You must read lots of books!". For those of us who cross boundaries (and for the few who enter entirely new frontiers) job descriptions become quickly irrelevant.

Of HTML and Meta Headers...

Anyway, how does this relate to the sidebar? Well as well as pretty much writing off Twitter I'd also written off the role of the Sidebar in Firefox - what's the point? I thought, it's just chopping the side off your browser for bookmarks or history (two things which generally deserve to be hidden).

That was, until, I started using Twitter again. After a brief purging of my old tweets I set about looking for a good desktop app (I settled on Twhirl in the end) and started following a few notable people I've met along the way. Great stuff, I thought, as I watched the tweets (about #uksnow, mostly) roll in.

Then I went into work. Ah, well - with some things you can cope with having a service in another window but after a few hours of ALT+SHIFT+TABing to check on Twitter I was getting fed up. After a bit of surfind around I eventually found this post which described how to get twitter in your sidebar.

So, now I have an effective use for that stupid slice on the left of my browser and Twitter's low maintenance mobile solution can sit there and only catch my eye when it changes. One thing I noticed was that the mobile interface doesn't refresh - good on a costly mobile connection, but not for me. The solution was a short html file stored on my local machine and bookmarked in the browser:

<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="120" />
<frameset cols="0,*">
<frame src="#">
<frame src="" name="showframe">

A brief bit of dodgy HTML and I now had a pretty effective Twitter interface with zero installation requirement. It's amazing what you can find on the web...

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Coping with RSS Overload

Just when I think I've got my email all sorted it suddenly becomes apparent that my Google Reader has over 200 'Starred' items. My pattern for reading blogs through RSS (and, realistically, I hardly ever read anything any other way if I can help it) involves scanning the description and 'filing' the post for a proper read if it's a) too long to read now and b) interesting.

Train journey's are a perfect time to catch up but, unfortunately, too many blogs only give some of the post via RSS - which means that I end up having to go online to read them anyway. This is my third most disliked blog-habit* and makes me pine for a lovely netbook with built in 3G

Organising Feeds

There are some feeds which I always just scan through, some which occasionally need further reading and others which nearly always end up Starred. Most of the time, the Starred posts are work-related and are an analysis of something I follow up on - or post on myself.

So, once in a while I tend to plough through the Starred file to try and get to 'RSS-Zero', I normally do this by 'sifting' the posts several times. 

The first sift is for fun stuff, or passive things (YouTube videos often end up here as I tend to be a reader rather than a viewer). 

The second sift is to sort out themes within the posts - I've already scanned all the posts during the first sift so I can no go through and pick out all the posts about (say) happenings related to LibraryThing/Bowker. These can then be treated as a whole (I tend to try and tease my way back to the 'original' element and then scan the posts after for the analysis elements) and read or possibly even turned into a blog post.

The third sift identifies all the remaining posts which need a good solid read - these are usually going to inform me directly (lifehacker posts tend to end up on the Starred list from time to time) and I tend to pick a few of these posts to add to a 'Useful Links' post which are useful to go back to in the future.

The problem is I always end up with a few 'posts' which have piqued my interest but can't be dealt with there and then. A good example of this is this post by Lorcan Dempsey about the publication of the proceedings of the first M-Libraries conference.

The post interests me for 2 reasons: Firstly, I'm interested that there's a second conference in June this year (not that I'll be able to wangle my way to Vancouver, mind) - that's easy, I just fire an event into my calendar prefixed "Watch:" and then I can forget about it until June.

I'm also interested in reading the proceedings of the first conference, so I check my Library's catalogue and.... oh, it's not there yet. So I leave it starred and check again next time I go on an RSS blitz.


This is OK for one post but I'm now down to such a level that I have 30 or 40 posts at any one time 'sitting' waiting for the world to change in some way before I do something about them. Eventually, I know, I'll declare RSS-bankruptcy and just ditch them. It's sad but it's true.

* First is having feeds which only contain the title, which is a surefire 'unsubscribe' for me and second is making links which look like they're going somewhere link to a blog's previous posts on that subject (you know who I mean, Engadget).

Saturday, 31 January 2009

2009 Predictions

So, January - if any month was a goldmine for bloggers it's January. Firstly, it's just been Christmas so all those odd gadgets are ready and waiting for your community review and secondly it gives everyone an opportunity to try and guess what the New Year will bring.

And why not? Here's my top 10 trends for 2009:

1. Mobile Web - it's not just about the iPhone, 2009 will be the year that sorts the wheat from the chaff in terms of mobile websites and applications. Those who should be offering services to the small screens will be starting to panic by December if they don't have a top class interface. After all, mobile is the new black.

2. Always On -in many ways this is an extension of the Mobile Web but WiFi (free, no warranty and unsecured) will continue to expand and the gaps will be filled by 3G and other technologies. 

3. Location Sensitivity - Mozilla Geode, GPS in phones, and all kinds of geo-mashing means that by the end of 2009 we'll be starting to expect that web applications know where we are when we use them. This will lead to all kinds of cool Library applications.

4. Reality Will Be (even more) Augmented - the first three predictions will start to work together to provide more augmented experiences. Who hasn't seen someone walking down the street, with google maps on their iPhone? The next step will be continually updated information which can be used to 'enhance' your experience of the real world with all kinds of metadata - imagine google earth but in the real world.

5. The Google OS Comes of Age - more people will ditch e for g, google docs, gmail, calendar and other cloud apps will become far more prevalent and people's first reaction will be to go online. Windows 7 might even boot straight to IE...

6. IPv6 - There'll be an increasing push on moving to IPv6 in order to cater for all those cars, phones, watches and spoons which will need IP addresses.

7. Chrome will Catch Up with Firefox - Well, maybe not by the end of 2009 but Google will package Chrome in as many ways as possible and this will eat into the 'anything but IE' market. IE 8 will probably win some floating browsers back and will, of course, have the core 'bundled with Windows' market. It's not unthinkable that we'll enter into a second browser wars with Google and Microsoft head to head in 2010.

8. Fibre Becomes Political - Obama's already stated that building a new communications infrastructure is a key part of his technology agenda and Gordon Brown's jumped on the bandwagon. Whether this is modern day boondoggling or not we'll end up with a better spread of high bandwidth access in the end. 2009 will probably be more about preparing, posturing and fears of a new digital divide.

9. Twitter Jumps the Shark - Are there any celebs who aren't tweeting (or at least having their assistant tweet for them?). People will start to see that Twitter is mostly divided between 'broadcasting' A-listers and banal "@jon - had beans for tea" individuals - all the effective use in the middle will shift to business or social-network based presence services. 

10. Better Language Processing - Ok, maybe this won't come in 2009 but it's just on the horizon. It would be fantastic to think that the semantic web could be fueled by well formatted, and easily accessible, XML data but there's going to need to be something that bridges the gap and can identify and attribute triples from the language of text. We might see increasing use of simple approaches in 2009 (identifying phone numbers, places, postal codes, etc) at least.

Here's some other 2009 lists for those who are interested: Robin Hamman, Trendspotting, Tame the Web, Pew, Horizon Report - A & NZ and various LITA people.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Link Round Up

Yet more great stories you might have missed.