UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Archive for September, 2007

Speculation on Microsoft Investment in Facebook

Posted by Brian Kelly on 29 September 2007

A Techcrunch article on Microsoft May Invest in Facebook At $10 Billion Valuation was published on 24 September 2007.

James Brown on the RIN Team blog has provided some interesting thoughtson the reasons why Microsoft are willing to invest $300-$500 million for a 5% stake in the company – which would place a valuation on the company of $10 billion.

I was interested in one of the statistics James provided: Facebook has 42 million active users and, in comparison, Spain has a population of 45 million. Is Facebook really, as some have suggested, really a passing fad. Perhaps Spain is, as well :-) And I wonder if, on 4 April 1975, anyone would have predicted the growth in Microsoft and when it stopped being dismissed as a fad?

Posted in Facebook | Tagged: | 11 Comments »

The RSCs In Scotland NewsFeed Blog

Posted by Brian Kelly on 28 September 2007

Via a Technorati search for JISC I came across the RSC NewsFeed Blog provided by the JISC RSC Scotland North & East and RSC Scotland South & West services. This was launched on 28 August 2007 and since then then have been many postings, providing useful snippets of information, many of which describe various Web 2.0 services relevant to the teaching applications. 

I noticed that all of the posts were published on just three dates: 29 August, 11 September and 25 September.   I then realised that the blog is published as a newsletter, with issue 3 having been released recently.

I think this can be a useful approach to providing a blogging service, although I do wonder whether the sudden publication of multiple posts might act as a barrier to engaging readers in discussion via the blog comments (and the service does allow comments to be published).  But on the other hand, it does strike me as a more environmentally friendly solution that the printed newsletter and much more easier to use and repurposable than simply published a PDF version of a paper newsletter.

I’ve added this to my del.icio.us bookmarks of resources I’ll be using in the half day masterclass  on “Using Blogs Effectively Within Your Library” which Kara Jones and myself will be running on 7th October 2007.

Does anyone else have example of blogs being used to provide access to newsletters?

Posted in Blog | 4 Comments »

A New Search Interface for HERO

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 September 2007

I have been reading the September issue of the HERO Headlines magazine, which provides “the latest news from HERO Ltd, the company behind the UK’s official online gateway to higher education and research opportunities“.

An article in the magazine describes the release of a search tool which can be added to Internet Explorer and Firefox browser to enable the HERO.ac.uk Web site to be searched directly from the browser, without first having to go to the HERO Web site. Use of this search facility to search for articles about UKOLN is shown in the diagram.

Search for 'UKOLN' on Hero Web site

At one stage there was a tendency in various Web development circles that browser-specific enhancements should be avoided, as they don’t necessarily provide universal solutions (in this case, users of the Opera browser may feel disenfranchised). I don’t go along with this argument – I feel that this provides a richer and easier-to-use solution for many users, whilst still allowing users of more specialist browsers (or old versions of Internet Explorer or Firefox) to search the Web site in the traditional way.

Congratulations to HERO for this development. Now how many institutions are configuring their browsers with similar search interfaces for their institutional Web site, I wonder?

Posted in browser, search | 6 Comments »

The Future As Today, But More So

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 September 2007

My Background

When I was young we didn’t have a TV and it wasn’t until I was 7 or so that my family caught up, and I discovered why my school friends were so excited about Doctor Who. And at that time we didn’t have a telephone, so when my parents wanted to ring their friends, it involved a trip to the public telephone kiosk opposite our house, until we got a phone installed (which, of course, was initially was on a shared party line). But we never had a family car.

In more recent years I can recall being dismissive of yuppies and business men and their very large mobile phones.

Nowadays, of course, the TV, the landline, the car and the mobile phone are mainstream consumer products, and households without them are in a minority.

And I find myself in a position in which I’m no longer behind the times, but am an early adopter of various examples of the current generation of technological innovations. I was an early adopter of digital TV (when Freeview was known as OnDigital) and I now have an iPod and a Nokia N95 mobile phone, which can be use as a digital camera, a video camera, a sound recorder, a music player, a GPS device, a radio, a TV, and, last but not least, a telephone. Truly, it seems, Star Trek technology has arrived as a consumer product (well, the Star Trek communicator at least).

So just as, as a child, I eventually caught up with my peers with their 405 line black and white TV, I think we’ll see the devices I am currently using becoming ubiquitous in a few years time, as the prices come down, features become even richer, interfaces simpler and, hopefully, battery life improved.

Envisaging the Future

Envisaging the future as the same as today, with the general population catching up with the early adopters, what might we predict?  Let’s look at some of the things that I can do today and extrapolate their use (and the implication of such usage patterns) in a wider context: perhaps at school, at college and by the general public.

The first point to make is that capturing content is easy, at least for sound and video. I’ve heard that recording/videoing lectures in Universities in the US is common (or at least in prestigious Universities in California).  So rather than “can I borrow your notes for this morning’s lecture; I slept in” the updated version may be “beam me this morning’s lecture“.

But we should remember that the old slogan that “content is king” is no longer necessarily true. Rather it could be argued that “communications, not content, is king“.  Many of us, myself included, were surprised by the takeup of SMS text messaging, which, despite the poor user interface, has become incredibly popular, in the UK at least, and this takeup is reflected in the popularity of instant messenger applications such as MSN Messenger.

Applying this approach within the content of more sophisticated mobile devices, we might see a growth in micro-blogging (as exemplified by Twitter) and podcasting / videocasting from one’s mobile phone. Indeed we can envisage how a voice message left while using a phone could easily be syndicated and accessed via a variety of platforms, in a manner similar to podcasting, without needing to be encumbered with the microphones and PC equipment which is normally associated with the creation of podcasts.

And anything you can do with sound can also be applied to video, with the mobile phone acting as the camcorder. But rather than paying expensive rates using 3G technologies, a WiFi network with enable videocasting / videoblogging to be affordable – and even free in environments in which the user has access to an organisational WiFi network, such as is the case in many universities.

So the content creation side of things is getting easier – and the services for accessing such resources is not longer restricted to the desktop, with, for example, Twitter, Jaiku and Facebook all providing access from mobile devices to their services.

The popularity of Facebook will also lead to changing expectations regarding use of applications.  We are finding with Facebook that users are treating applications as disposable: they are easy to install  and, if you don’t find them of use, you thow away, like an unwanted toy.  And this click-to-install, click-to-remove approach to applications is becoming the norm for mobile applications too.

We seem to be rapidly moving towards both a blended environment (content can be both captured and viewed on a variety of platforms – and I’m conscious that I haven’t mentioned games machines) and a disposable environment, in which the application is no longer the important aspect.  In this environment, we will find that the technology vanishes – with many users having little interest in the technological features for applications used on a daily basis; rather many people will make their purchasing decisions based on other factors, such as how cool it looks (and maybe David Beckham is still the style guru).

And we shouldn’t be concerned at such developments.  After all, we no longer regard the television or telephone as ‘technology’ and, for many, interest in purchasing hifi separates has disappeared, with the choice between buying a Sony or Philip HiFi system at Dixons being based on marketing and aesthetic considerations.  Rather software developers should pat themselves on the back and say “job done” (except in niche areas and in the necessary back office functions which, like keeping the London sewerage system flowing, will still be needed but will be largely invisible).

Will This Happen?

Will the future pan out like this?  Probably not! Indeed, when I speculated a few years ago (July 2004) that the Netgem iPlayer (a digital TV box I use at home) will be a forerunner of Internet access via the TV, I was clearly wrong (or at least very premature in such speculations!)

And the notion that software development will not continue to grow in importance will clearly be regarded as heresy by many readers of this blog (and has been predicted on many occassions previously, not least when The Last One application was released for the Commodore Pet in the early 1980s, if my memory is correct).

And the notion that the future will be a simple extrapolation of currents trends has also been shown to be false (the streets of London are not covered in horse shit as was predicted in the nineteenth century).

But, on the other hand, the blacksmith and related occupations have (almost) disappeared once the new technology of the internal combustion engine became popular.

And, since I first started writing this post I have come across an update to the Nokia 95 article in Wikipedia which describes the Nokia N95 8GB device (increased memory and longer battery life) and read Apple’s announcement about the iPod Touch device which has WiFi support.

So maybe the future is closer to realisation that I’m expecting. Although I’m sure that the future won’t be a linear progression based on what we have today.

Note: The image of a Star Trek Communicator, taken from WIkipedia, has been removed following the deletion of the image from the Wikipedia Web site. Brian Kelly, 10 Nov 2008.

Posted in Gadgets, General | 12 Comments »

Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs and Social Networks

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 September 2007

In November 2006 UKOLN ran a day’s workshop on Exploiting The Potential Of Wikis which was held at Austin Court, Birmingham. The feedback for the event was very positive, with positive comments made not just about the content of the workshop but also the venue.

This year, on 26th November 2007, we will be running a similar workshop on Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs And Social Networks. The event will have a similar format to last year’s workshop, with four institutional case studies in the morning, following by two  talks which address the challenges which institutions will need to address after lunch.   The talks will inform the group discussion sessions which will aim to identify the various issues which will need to be addressed (technical, legal, social, etc.) and ways in which institutions can exploit the potential of blogs and social networks whilst minimising associated risks.

I’m pleased to say that the institutional cases studies will illustrate the diversity of approaches which are being taken across the higher education sector, ranging from use of blogging services in a managed VLE (WebCT), use of an open source solution (Elgg) and use of social networking services such as Facebook. In addition to the talks giving the views of the institution, I’m pleased to say that we’ll also be hearing about the students’ perspective, with a talk by Tom Milburn, Vice President Education at Bath University Students’ Union.

The online booking form for the event is now available. The workshop fee, which includes workshop materials, lunch and coffee and access to the WiFi network, is £85. The closing date for bookings is Friday 26th October 2007 – but note that at last year’s event the workshop was fully subscribed two weeks before the closing date, so we would advise early booking.

Technorati Tags: blogs-social-networks-workshop-2007

Posted in Events, Social Networking | 3 Comments »

TokBox – A Useful Video-Conferencing Tool Or Something Sinister?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 19 September 2007

The TokBox Video Chat Tool

The TokBox instant video chat tool was reviewed by TechCrunch in August 2007. As with several of the Web 2.0 services I’ve mentioned on this blog, Tokbox is very easy to set up and use: simply register for a (free) account and, assuming you have a Webcam and microphone available, that’s about it. You can simply invite your friends to visit your area on the ToxBox Web site and they can then have a video chat with you, as illustrated below (in which I’m chatting to my colleague Paul Walk).

TokBox videoconferencing toolAs is the norm for many Web 2.0 services, TokBox can be embedded in other Web pages or blogs. And ToxBox makes use of tagging for identification of users (I’ve used the ‘ukoln’ tag to identify myself).

It also seems that ToxBox can support more than two users (the icon in the top right window shows the number of users).

The Hidden Dangers

Last week when I started to evaluate TokBox I used it with a number of colleagues in. On one Later on Paul came into my office, telling me that he had been watching me and it was obvious that I was unaware that Paul had connected to my ToxBox account and was viewing the video and listening to me talking to myself!

I had expected to approve anyone who wished to view my video feed, so I was surprised when this happened – although I realised that I would have missed a sound alert as I had turned down the sound on my loudspeaker.

Conclusions

Should we be worried about the privacy implications of TokBox? My view is that this is an educational issue and, once we understand how the application works, we will use it in ways which reflect our particular requirements (indeed, one person commented on the TechCrunch article that TokBox is “going to force me to blog in something other than my pajamas.”).

Although many video chat tools are available (including Skype) TokBox is interesting as it requires no software to be installed locally. Rather the integration with the Web browser is carried out using Flash. For me I think it could be a useful ‘just-in-case’ or ‘just-in-time’ communications tool, rather than something that I’ll use on a regular basis.I was also interested to read that a TokBox application for Facebook is now available.

I was also interested to read a post on the Advercation blog which is “aggregating as many people’s TokBoxes as possible on one page” – an experiment which has some interesting possibilities. I have to admit that it reminds me of University Challenge, but I’m worried that, as a number of people have already commented, its killer use may be for the porn market :-(.

Aggregation of TokBox interfaces

Technorati Tags: TokBox

Posted in Web2.0 | 18 Comments »

The ‘Me Too’ Web 2.0 Applications

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 September 2007

A few day’s ago I notice that Phil Bradley had updated his Twitter status with the comment “playing around with Trooker.com It’s really good… music videos galore!“.

As I trust Phil’s views on Web 2.0 applications I had a look at Trooker. Sure enough, it’s another easy-to-use Web 2.0 service which provides access to video clips from services such as YouTube, allows comments to be provided, the video clips to be embedded in blogs and Web pages, etc.

I know think that we are in now an era of plenty, with many Web 2.0 services providing similar approaches in the provision of access to multimedia resources, sharing resources, blogging, etc.  (as an example compare Jaiku and Yappd).  And I think this richness is to be appreciated – it is helping to demonstrate  that there is a need  for such services, and the variety of services available provides the user with choice, with features which are providing popular helping to open up the marketplace (who, for example, predicted the popularity of micro-blogging).

Of course in a time when the harvest is bountiful, we need to make plans for the winter. For me, this involves ensuring that the data associated which such applications  can be managed  – and the approaches to the management can include hosting it locally or depositing it with a third-party service, having a just-in-time approach to data management (migrating the data if the licence conditions change)  or even having a ‘am I bovvered?’ approach, which regards the data as playing a peripheral role to the needs of the service.  This might be regarded as heretical in some circles but, to be honest,  I’ve never bothered recording my phone calls, and just because I could record my Skype calls doesn’t mean I will.

Posted in Web2.0 | 4 Comments »

Your Views On Externally-Hosted Web 2.0 Services

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 September 2007

I have found the My Questions Facebook application useful in getting focussed responses to questions I’ve raised. In the past few months I’ve asked for comments on Skype (most find it useful with only one person feeling it should be banned) and how institutions should respond to Facebook (almost everybody feels we should engage with it in some fashion, whilst being aware of possible dangers, and only one dissenting view from someone who feels it’s a fad).

My question for this month is:

Externally-hosted blogs, wikis, etc: (a) valuable solution for institutions which can save effort and resources; (b) to be avoided, as institutions need to be able to manage and tweak their own services or (c) an alternative view (please describe)?

I’ve already found that asking this question has proved valuable, as Chris Adie has included a link to a document on Guidelines for Using External Services produced by the University of Edinburgh. Barry Cornelius, incidentally used the JISCMail mailing list to inform me of a document on Checklist for assessing third-party IT services which addresses similar issues and some time ago I wrote a QA Focus briefing document on Risk Assessment For Use Of Third Party Web 2.0 Services.

What are your thoughts? If you can keep your responses down to 255 characters, you might wish to respond in Facebook; those who prefer to waffle on for longer than this may wish to respond to this blog post :-)

Posted in Facebook, Web2.0 | 8 Comments »

Amplified Conferences

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 September 2007

Matt Jukes, in a post about the JISC Services Skills Day, used the term “Amplified Conference” to describe the approach to be taken to the event. This term, which was coined by Lorcan Dempsey, describes a conference which exploits networked technologies to enable the topics addressed at a conference to be heard and influence a larger audience than would normally be the case.

As I mentioned in a trip report, the JISC Services Day exploited the (excellent) network facilities at Said Business Business School by having a dedicated blogger, who produced a blog post in realtime for all of the plenary talks, and a tag for the event (‘skillsday2007‘) which would enable the data created by users of other Web 2.0 tools – other bloggers, Flickr users (Stuart Yeates used this tag for the photographs he took on the day), people, like myself, who used del.icio.us to bookmark relevant resources, etc. – to be found and reused. And, incidentally, a photograph Stuart took of me managed to attract the attention of one person, with the comment “what a great portrait! full of life and twinkle. He looks like a good regaler.” (I’ll treat that as a complement!)

In retrospect, however, it struck me that the approach taken merely amplified the voice of the speakers, by providing a transcipt of their talks. What we didn’t get was an amplification of the views of the participants at the event, or, indeed, the views of people who were unable to attend the event.

At UKOLN we have been organising Amplified Events for some time. The technologies we have used include:

  • Blogs: As with the JISC Services Skills day we have been lucky to have had a skilled writer (Owen Stephens) who has been comfortable enough with blogging technologies to provide real time blog reports which, as can been seen from the examples at UKOLN’s IWMW 2005 and IWMW 2006 events (and the UCISA 2004 and UCISA 2007 conferences) are readable and comprehesive, providing an excellent example of how to amplfiy talks at conferences.
  • Skype: On a couple of occassions we have had remote participanmts who have listened in to an event using Skype (with Skype’s chat facility being used as a back channel, which allowed a local mentor to support the remote particpant).
  • Wikis: At IWMW 2006 and IWMW 2007 we made use of MediaWiki followed by WetPaint to support the brreakout groups. As can be seen from an example from IWMW 2007, this amplified the report of the discussion sessions which took place (moving away from the tyranny of the closed and non-interoperable world of flip charts!)
  • Chat facilities: I feel that a chat facility provide the most democrat tool for amplifying an event, as it can be decoupled from plenary talks and discussion groups, allowing all participants an equal voice. The Gabbly service was used to provide a chat service at IWMW 2007, although other tools, such as IRC, have been used at other events.
  • PowerPoint slide illustrating impact of people in the UKPodcasting and VideoCasting: Recording a talk or videoing a presentation can allow the content to be amplified in a time dimension, to complement the geo-spatial amplification provided by the other tools I’ve mentioned. I should add that the benefits of this approach were brought home to me at the JISC CETIS Conference 2006, when, in the closing plenary talk on Blended Learning: Pragmatic Innovation, Jim Farmer (from the Center for Scholarly Systems Architecture, Georgetown University, USA) mentioned me in his list of people in the UK who had influenced his thinking. It turned out that Jim was referring to the recordings of the plenary talks for a joint UCISA/UKOLN/CETIS workshop on Initiatives & Innovation: Managing Disruptive Technologies event on I organised in February 2006. It seems that Jim listened to the recordings of the talks by Oleg Liber, Robert Sherrat and John Dale (but not my talk as I was unable to record my talk while simultaneously speaking!) during on long journey and cited the work described by these three speakers at various events and meetings over in the US.

I think it is important to acknowledge that use of such technologies is not for everyone (as Matt Jukes recently mentioned, although he has several gadgets he enjoys using, at events he prefers to use a pen and paper for his notetaking. And not all events would be supportive of participants typing away at their keyboards while speakers are talking. We recognised this at IWMW 2005 (when we initially encouraged exploitation of the WiFi network at a UKOLN event) and ensured that we asked the participants for their feedback on this experiment. For this community the feedback was very supportive and we have built on this approach since then, although we still encourage feedback and seek to address the concerns of those who do find it distracting to be sat next toi people who are typing away during a presentation (perhaps we should have a quiet corner at such events, or perhaps a training course on how to type quietly! )

And note that UKOLN has published various briefing papers on the exploitation of WiFi networks at events, including ones on Exploiting Networked Applications At Events (briefing 106), Guidelines For Exploiting WiFi Networks At Events (briefing 107), Guide To The Use Of Wikis At Events (briefing 104) and Use Of Social Tagging Services At Events (briefing 105). These all have Creative Commons licences, so feel free to reuse the contents of the documents provided acknowledgements are given to UKOLN.

Technorati Tags: skillsday2007

Posted in Events | 1 Comment »

Blogs, Wikis, Podcasting and All That

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 September 2007

The Event

On Wednesday 5 September 2007 I attended a JISC Skills Update day on Exploiting Communication Channels which was held at Said Business School, Oxford. The event was very successful, as was clearly shown form the evaluation form for the event: the venue was particularly well-appreciated (over 75% of those who completed the online evaluation form thought that Said College was an excellent venue) and over 95% felt that the similar events should be held in the future.

Other comments which were made included “This event was excellent and has provided us with lots of ideas for the future“, “I found the day excellent – especially from the pov of networking face to face so another event like this would be useful! Really interesting to find the different models of use of web2.0 tools emerging” and “I found the day very informative and came back with many practical ideas for further investigation and discussion for implementation within our service“.

The main focus of the event was on the potential role of Web 2.0 technologies (and Second Life) to support the communications infrastructure provided by JISC Service organisations – although the role of more well-established approaches (including email and both print and online newsletters) were also covered.

It was pleasing that there seemed to be such a high level of interest in making greater use of technologies such as blogs and wikis within this particular community. Indeed several Web 2.0 technologies were used on the day itself, with live blogging of the talks and a scalable tag provided for the event (skillsday2007) which enabled resources related to the event to be easily found via Technorati.

The issues that were raised during the questions seemed to be on “how?” (the best practices) rather than “why?” and there were some interesting questions raised about the different approaches to blogging taken by CETIS (blogs provided by individual CETIS SIG coordinators) and OSS Watch (individuals posting on a team blog).

These are areas of interest to be (i.e. the broad question of deployment strategies for Web 2.0 technologies for national services) and will be something I will revisit in the near future.

My Talk

I was pleased that my talk on “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasting and All That” was highlighted in the comments (“I thought Brian’s presentation was excellent!“) and appeared to be the most highly rated of the plenary talks with over 80% either agreeing or strongly agreeing. Note that, unfortunately the survey form was poorly designed and it wasn’t stated what they were agreeing with! But as one person commented “I hope that choosing “Strongly Agree” is interpreted as meaning I found the presentation strongly relevant and interesting (as I’m not sure from the wording of the questionnaire)” This is the interpretation I’ve taken too!

In my talk I described my personal experiences in using blogs, wikis, multimedia and social networks. The slides are available on Slideshare and are embedded in this post (in suitably configured browsers).

In addition I created a brief (2 minute) video clip which is available on YouTube explaining why I use blogs, wikis and social networks. Again the video clip is embedded in this post.

The video clip represents the initial experiment in use of my mobile phone for taking videos. I’m aware of some technical limitations (e.g. the lighting) – but I thought it would be useful to document the initial attempt.

Technorati Tags: Technorati Tags: skillsday2007

Posted in Events, Web2.0 | 2 Comments »

Reminder of the UK Web Focus Evaluation

Posted by Brian Kelly on 11 September 2007

As announced on 23rd August 2007, an evaluation of the UK Web Focus blog is currently being carried out, using the SurveyMonkey software.

The comments received so far have been very useful in helping me to gain a better understanding of the reader community and the infrastructure which is being used for reading this blog. I have also received useful feedback on the aspects of the blog which readers find useful – and areas in which improvements can be made.

The UK Web Focus has its first birthday on 1 November 2007. I am currently thinking about changes I could make which can enhance the service, so I would very much welcome feedback from readers who have not yet completed the (brief) evaluation.

The evaluation form will be live until 22nd September.

Posted in Blog | Leave a Comment »

Butler Group Report: Rich Web Applications

Posted by Brian Kelly on 10 September 2007

Summary of the Report

I was recently invited to evaluate a Butler Group Report on “Rich Web Applications”. I was impressed by the quality of this report, which is very timely for those organisations which may be considering the development or Rich Web Applications (RWA) or Rich Internet Applications (RIA). And higher educational organisations which are involved in software development should, I feel, have a strong interest in this area, whether this is in applications which run within a Web browser (Google Maps providing a good example of a RWA) and Internet applications which do not require a Web browser (Google Earth is a good example of a RIA).

This 267 page report suggests that RIA will provide the default approach to application development in the near future, with this approach currently in the transition from being used by the early adopters through to mainstream acceptance.

Of particular interesting to those actively involved in JISC development strategies, including the JISC E-Framework, is the view that RWA and Web 2.0 ideas are being transferred to Enterprise Web 2.0. Similarly the report’s suggestion that importance of Software as a Service (SaaS) will be boosted by RWA is very closely aligned with the JISC’s Information Environment, and the well-established tradition of providing networked-based services for the academic sector.

The report provides a useful overview of the different approaches to the development of RWA, ranging from Ajax toolkits and widget libraries and use of browser plugins (such as Adobe’s Flash player, Java applets and Microsoft Silverlight) and RIA development environments including Java or .NET.

The report then provides an overview of the main development environments, suggesting that the Adobe Flex and Nexaweb platform are early leaders in the field, with Microsoft’s Rich User Experience (which seems to be a generic name which refers to Microsoft’s .NET Framework and Silverlight run-time browser plugin) and Sun’s Visual Web Pack and Netbeans IDE also worthy of consideration.

Implications for the Sector

If the report is correct in its views on the importance of Rich Web Applications (and I suspect it is) then IT Service departments and other groups within our institutions which are involved in serious software development activities will need to make some significant decisions about the technical routes they should adopt. This report should help technical managers who will be involved in such decision-making processes.

But I also feel that others involved in the provision and support of Web services need to have a better understanding of the implications in a growth in use of Rich Web Applications. At present I suspect many well-established institutional Web teams will have a development culture which is based on the notion of the Web as an informational resource, with policies based on the notion of a page-based service.  But Rich Web Applications aren’t based a page metaphor. I suspect that we will find that existing policies and guidelines are likely to be irrelevant – but there may be battles to be fought before an appreciation of the richer Web environment is widely accepted.  And one likely battlefield is likely to be the widely-held belief that JavaScript and/or browser plugins (which are required in order to deploy RWAs)  cannot be deployed on Web sites which seek to be accessible.

Posted in Web2.0 | 1 Comment »

Guest Blog Post: The Eternal Beta

Posted by ukwebfocusguest on 6 September 2007

Today’s guest blog post was written by Phil Wilson, who works in the Web Services Team at the University of Bath. Phil ran a workshop session at the IWMW 2007 event on “The Eternal Beta – Can it Work in an Institution?” in which he addressed the question of whether the Web 2.0 development philosophy of ‘always beta’ was applicable with the educational sector:

Google’s famous for it, Flickr’s moved to Gamma, Moo are on an eternal 1.0 – yet still in institutions we plod on with a tired, slow-moving and opaque process for developing and enhancing applications. From our closed support lines to official notices on unread websites and applications mysteriously changing in front of a user’s very eyes we look staid and tedious. But it doesn’t have to be like that, we could be fast faced and interactive – but at what cost? Continuity? Uptime?


I could ramble on about this for thousands of words, but I’ll try and keep it brief (for me):

  • you take too long rolling out software
  • you don’t do enough unit testing or user testing

One of the leading ideas of eternal beta is small improvements all the time. It’s the preferred model for developing Web 2.0 applications (just look at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and about a billion Silicon Valley startups). The essence is that if you’ve changed something small and you’re waiting for the next milestone before you release, you’re crazy – just deliver it. If it turns out to be wrong or broken in some way, you can just change it again.

There are a couple of things people typically reply with:

One of the big fears that it hasn’t been user-tested enough. Well, in institutions we’ve got thousands of technically-minded members – staff and students alike; what do you think the odds are on being able to make, say, twenty of them beta testers? (It’s critical to get testers from outside your team; your team are effectively the alpha testers) I mean, you’ve probably got bloggers, Facebook group founders and tech contacts everywhere. See who you can find to test your apps – it doesn’t have to be the same people for all of them, and make it worth their while either by delivering a better application to them than everyone else, or maybe some mark of kudos inside the application that everyone else can see.

This does rely on being able to get good feedback from your testers – hey, you’d hope that if your software is good enough they’ll be telling you anyway, but you can use incentives or whatever floats their feedback-giving boat. The important part is exposing the feedback communication channel; maybe it’s a forum, maybe it’s blog where you post the new features and they add comments, maybe it’s a weekly meetup in the bar. Whatever you do, talking to those people and making sure that they can see that there are other active testers, whom you’re listening to and actually replying to is A1 critical. No trust == no good feedback.

The other big fear is that this basically throws traditional software development and delivery out of the window (farewell, cruel Gantt chart). When a team suddenly has deliverable dates measured in the days rather than the months you suddenly discover that the priorities change and you start getting people-focussed software rather than something focussed on year-old requirements. This is where agile techniques start kicking in. Things like pair-programming, continuous integration, automated deployment are all your friends. Techniques like PRINCE2 and Scrum are there to pick up the rest of the slack.

In the real world, although my team isn’t quite there yet (notably with the feedback), we’re trying hard and it’s paying dividends in terms of delivered software and happier users.

Phil Wilson
Web Services
University of Bath

Phil’s blog: http://philwilson.org/blog/

Posted in Guest-post, iwmw2007 | 3 Comments »

Guest Blog Post: Web 2.0 and Sustainability

Posted by ukwebfocusguest on 5 September 2007

Today’s guest blog post comes from Ross Gardler, manager of JISC’s OSS Watch service and a co-facilitator of a workshop session at IWMW 2007 on “Sustainable Services: Solidity based on Openness?”.


At OSS Watch we spend a considerable amount of time highlighting sustainability as one of the key benefits of open source. There is no central organisation that can simply “pull the plug” on the product and its maintenance. Open source licences ensure that the software will always be available and, while there are active users of that software, it will always be maintained.This perpetual availability of open sourced software is only one of the key benefits provided by open source licences. Another is the ability to take that software and customise it for your own needs. To add new features and to disable features not important to your situation. In other words to take a “close fit” solution and mould it into a “better fit” solution.Web services that provide open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) present similar mix-and-match benefits, at least on the surface, that open source provides, but does it provide the same level sustainability in your solutions?This was the topic of a workshop session I hosted with Andrew Savory at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2007 entitled “Sustainable Services: Solidity based on Openness?“. In this session we asked how participants measured the sustainability of their chosen software solutions. The list of criteria produced included items such as:

  • reliability
  • reputation
  • scale of the provider
  • significance of us as a customer
  • data ownership and openness
  • fashion
  • community
  • flexibility

The full list was far too long to detail in this post, but a few were clearly more important than others. This became particularly evident when we proceeded to evaluate a number of well known Web services against the defined criteria.

For example, data access was critical in most Web services. Was the data available in an open standard that made it interoperable with other services? Having put data into the service, could you get it out again? Flexibility was another major concern for the API approach. Did the API allow us to achieve what we want to achieve?

I would argue, like Mark Pilgrim, that this should not be an issue, we should have access to our data, and all derived data, as a matter of course – it’s our data after all. Mark observes that “praising companies for providing APIs to get your own data out is like praising auto companies for not filling your airbags with gravel.

Workshop participants also noted that there is no guarantee that a service will be provided in the future. A topic that Brian Kelly discussed here in this blog when Splashblog closed its doors. Brian suggested that such closures could be considered by some to be a clear justification for not making use of such external Web 2.0 services – a point made by a number of our session participants. Indeed, many services were marked down quite heavily since they are largely unproven beta services with no clear business model. Despite this healthy concern over the longevity of service offerings, workshop attendees felt that some services, such as Shibboleth, are more sustainable because they have public money behind them. However, as Brian goes on to observe, even public sector services are not guaranteed to be there forever. To support his point Brian cites a BBC news article describing the closure of 551 government Web sites and wonders what happens to data held by the AHDS when funding ceases.

The overall conclusion of our workshop attendees was that Web services should only be relied upon for non-critical functions in your institution. Over time we may become more comfortable with relying on third party services, but for now we need to be careful. I liken it to the development of voice communications technologies. We don’t worry about having a dial tone the next time we pick up the phone, but the recent Skype outage shows we can’t rely on the newer voice communications services. The result is that Skype is not suitable for emergency calls.

Reaching Sustainability Through Openness

In my opinion one way of moving towards more sustainable services at a sensible pace is through openness in the development of those services. That is, if a service uses open data standards, provides fully open access to all its data and its APIs and encourages users to participate in the ongoing development of the service, I, as a user, am more likely to stick with it past my initial, experimental, use. For example, I love the idea of Dopplr, but I haven’t gone past exploration because it fails to provide the data in format that is useful to my objectives (Editor’s Note: Phil Wilson pointed out that a Doppler API has recently been announced at http://dopplr.pbwiki.com/. This comment was added at the request of Ross Gardler on 6 Septmeber 2007). Conversely, just 10 hours after the announcement of a beta API for OhLoh I had integrated OhLoh data into Simal, the OSS Watch project cataloguing tool. As soon as OhLoh produces an API for submitting data I’ll ensure the flow is two way, making both projects more likely to survive.

However, openness should not stop at the data and the APIs. I need to ensure that the service remains aligned with my strategic objectives. I want to be able to contribute directly to the flexibility and sustainability of the service in ways that suit my needs. This is where Oh Loh falls down, it is not open source and so my contribution options are limited.

Open source enables us, as users, to choose how to invest our resources in sustainable solutions. We can purchase related products such as support and hosting, or we can fund strategic development, or we can ensure our own staff help support and sustain the product through direct contribution of use cases, documentation, feature requests, bug fixes and even new feature implementations. All of these actions help ensure the product survives and continues to be available to our own organisation.

Web service companies will gladly accept similar contributions from us. The big difference between the two approaches is that with open source we have the freedom to decide where our resources are invested. We can maximise the impact our investment has on our individual utilisation of the service, thus making the service more useful. We are even free to take the software and create our own version should our objectives diverge considerably from the originating service provider (although this can usually be avoided if the project is well managed and cultivates a healthy community).

Most of us want the convenience of a service provider, but such convenience comes with the risk of potential lock-in and, even worse, the loss of a critical service. Having access to the source code means that we increase competition and consequently increase innovation in the code base. It does not prevent companies from differentiating themselves through the provision a more reliable and usable service within their chosen market niche.

Given the choice, I will always use a Web service that makes its source code available under an open source licence, even if that service is less developed than closed competitors. In most cases I will still purchase the service from a provider, but I want to keep my options open in order to ensure my own offerings are sustainable.

Our workshop participants largely agreed with this view, they too were more concerned about having control over their own organisations future in the long term than they were about the short term gains of adopting closed service models.

Ross Gardler
OSS Watch
OUCS
13 Banbury Road
University of Oxford
Oxford
OX2 6NN

OSS Watch Web site: http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/
OSS Watch blog: http://involve.jisc.ac.uk/wpmu/oss-watch/

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Guest Blog Post: The Web Community Discussion Group Session at IWMW 2007

Posted by ukwebfocusguest on 4 September 2007

Debbie NicholsonToday’s guest blog post was written by Debbie Nicholson, of the Web Support Unit at the University of Essex.

Debbie writes about the Institutional Web Management Workshop and the discussion group session she attended on “The Web Community” and the implications for the Web community.


I didn’t sign up for this discussion group … I signed up for one of the Greener Web discussion groups. I got a bit seduced by the idea of the whole Web community though. Having written my workshop session extolling the virtues of social networking and facilitating community of practice, it seemed wrong to suddenly change sides and start rooting for the environment … Also, Mike McConnell was chairing the session and he offered me beer if I would take notes for him … fair exchange, or so I thought!

From past experience, the discussion groups can be either really good or really bad. This year was no exception. I know of a few people who didn’t go back to their second discussion group session as they just didn’t think it was worth it. I know of one group where the chair turned up, said he wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be talking about, but that he wouldn’t be there the second day anyway… I think we actually had more people at our second session than the first. Word had obviously travelled that we were having a good discussion and really trying to come up with some answers … either that or someone had heard Mike mention beer.

We went into our session and did the usual … little eye contact, talk to no one. I suggested moving the chairs from classroom style rows, into a more discussion friendly circle-ish shape … and all of a sudden people started smiling and talking, and making eye contact! Mike soon put a stop to that with the regulation and totally hateful ’5 minutes to introduce yourselves to someone you don’t know’. Now this one is a little tricky… I’ve been going to IWMW for 6 years now. There are lots of people I don’t *really* know, but so many people I’ve seen around. So many names I’ve seen on documents and mailing lists, but like I say, I don’t really know them … but I almost feel as though I do.

Once we started the discussion it quickly transpired that we had quite a bit to say on the subject … 11 pages of notes in fact. And that only included the stuff that I was quick enough to write down. I also discovered that it’s actually quite difficult to be part of the discussion and write the notes. I wanted to jump in so many times, however, by the time I’d written up what was being said, someone else had got in first – and I had to write up their comments (repeat as necessary)!

After the conference I got the train back to London with Mike, his parting words were “thanks for writing the notes babe, just erm, type hem up and post them to me”. I sat at my desk about a week later looking at 11 pages of scrawl … Note to self: this just has to be easier if you do it straight away. Meaningless lines joining up one half a sentence with a whole load of words I couldn’t read, and some I clearly couldn’t spell… Only one thing for it… put the coffee on! I’m such a bugger for vacuuming the cat when there’s a rubbish job to be done.

Some time later, the notes started to emerge. What was really lovely about doing this job, apart from finishing it obviously, was the enthusiasm of the session really came back to me. The fact that we actually came up with action points. Things that we wanted to achieve … nothing that could be classed as rocket science, just practical things hat we want to put in place to take the ‘Web Management Community’ from being an idea, to a reality. Maintain the Facebook for IWMW, either year by year or a general IWMW group that we can all subscribe to. Try to encourage as many people as possible to sign up and become a part of it, and to think how we can make it bigger (can we incorporate any of the ideas from the Innovation competition…?). Like I said, not rocket science, but at least doable, something we can put our hands on … unlike the beer I was promised!!!

The mailing lists serve a purpose, they’ve worked well for many years to provide information, solutions, a point of contact … can we really call that a community though? When we go to the conference, we are only ever one drink in the bar away from making a fab new contact or a bloody good friend. With Facebook (or something similar) we can put a face to all the names we’ve seen around, or indeed a name to the face (how many people do we see year in year out and just can’t remember what they are called…?), we can post a comment, or make contact with someone we’ve wanted to speak to but don’t feel we know them well enough, we can invite people to gigs that are half way across the country … they might not be able to go – but god it’s nice to be asked (thanks Claire) … In short, we can create a community.

IWMW was the reason I joined Facebook. I wanted to know who else was going to the conference, all the details and any gossip … It’s turned into so much more than that for me though, and clearly that is the case for others too. People are using it, posting work related questions, joining groups that will provide us with more information and more contacts. I’ve managed to get back in touch with people I haven’t spoken to in years, made some really useful contacts, and made some lovely new friends too.

It’s scary to contact someone you don’t know for advice – how much easier is it to just get in touch and say “Thanks for  turning me into a vampire, by the way, do you know anything about…?

Discussion notes are available on the IWMW 2007 wiki at http://iwmw2007.wetpaint.com/page/Discussion_F

Debbie Nicholson
Web Support Unit
University of Essex

Debbie’s contact details are also available on Facebook.

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Guest Post: Post Your Favourite IWMW 2007 Video Moments

Posted by ukwebfocusguest on 3 September 2007

Anthony LeonardThe regular guest blog post this month features a number of articles about the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2007 (IWMW 2007) held at the University of York on 16-18th July 2007.

In this month’s opening guest blog post Anthony Leonard, who coordinated the live streaming of the plenary talks at IWMW 2007, shares his favourite moments and invites readers of the blog to suggest their preferences.


Brian has kindly asked me to write about our experiences in streaming the recent IWMW 2007 plenary talks. What I’d like to do is to ask readers of this blog what they considered their favourite moments from what was, as usual, a great event. Anyone can create a link to a specific point in the streams simply by clicking the “Link To Now” button during playback. Once clicked, a new browser window opens a special URL which starts playing the stream at the point you specified. Simply cut and paste this URL into a comment on this post, or anywhere else you feel like for that matter. (Neat huh? Now there’s something you can’t do on Google Video, yet!).  For the record, here are my top three favourites:

  1. Satisficing
  2. PLEs digested
  3. Caught on camera

I’ve focused on the lighter side to get things going, but you might want to highlight something that made you think, learn, worry or recoil as much as smile or laugh – anything really that stuck in your mind and is worth a second look.

So go on, if you’d like to, why not find your favourite moments from the IWMW 2007 videos, click on the “Link to Now” button and post the URLs back as comments to this blog post.

Technorati Tags: IWMW2007

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