“The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” – George Eliot

Continuing our series of summer updates I’m proud to announce the forthcoming release of Mozilla Firefox onto our corporate desktops. For a long time we have only provided support for Internet Explorer but with there now being a viable alternative we are going to be giving our staff and students a choice about which browser they use.

Firefox is one of the biggest software success stories of recent time. When it entered the market Microsoft had pretty much beaten back Netscape and the other 3rd party browsers with only Safari (due to it being the standard on Apple Macs) showing any kind of competition. Development of IE had slowed down significantly and versions 5-6 showed no massive changes except for security features. It was at this stage that Firefox entered the arena and proved an instant hit in the IT technical community. It’s wonderful features such as modular add-ons and tabbed browsing made IE 6 look completely outdated and soon had Microsoft racing to compete again.

During the time before IE7 was released Firefox took a large market share away from Microsoft’s browser and showed that people really did think about what they wanted from their web surfing tools. Despite this Firefox still remained quite fringe with the majority of home and corporate users unaware of their options or content to stick with what they knew. The lack of support for roaming bookmarks and limited security lockdowns made Firefox difficult to deploy in a business environment, until recently that is…

After lots of discussion and trials IT Services are finally in a position where we can offer Firefox with the same security as we provide for IE. While we still haven’t achieved success using roaming bookmarks (favorites) we feel that we can now offer Firefox up as an option. IE will still remain the default browser but staff and students will be able to pick Firefox from their network programs list if they want to use it. As Mike showed in his recent post Firefox usage is still growing significantly in some areas, it is our hope that we will see a lot of users trying it out. A lot of companies are now looking at Firefox as an option, even Dell are considering pre-installing on the computers they sell.

In my personal opinion Firefox is a fantastic browser, I still use Internet Explorer for a few things but I tend to use Firefox 90% of the time both in work and home (I’m using it right now to write this post actually!). My advise would be: Exercise your choice, try Firefox!

Campus instant messaging

MSN, ICQ, AOL, Yahoo, Skype, the list goes on and on! Instant messaging (IM) has become one of the most popular online services over the last 5 years. From the early days of plain text chat rooms and IRC people have been using the internet to communicate in real time rather than via email. Recently there has been a massive rise in online social networking and more people now use some for of instant messaging service than ever before, research last year showed that 82 million people used instant messaging in Europe alone. With IM being so popular surely there must be a use for it within education?

IT Services have been looking at an open source instant messaging system called Jabber with a view to providing a University wide instant messaging system allowing staff and students to communicate in real time via the web. After lots of testing and with hard work from Web Services to implement the back end systems we are finally ready to deploy this system.

We have decided to use a Jabber client by the name of Spark. While not as feature rich as clients such as MSN messenger or Skype, Spark offers us a great deal of flexibility as it supports an open source plug-in system which means we can develop our own features for it. The back end system is also very flexible and integrates into our network allowing us to use network login for the Spark client.

So what does all this actually mean? Well from September onwards we will be deploying Spark to all computers at the Ormskirk campus and to other areas off site. Users will be able to launch the program from their desktop and login using their usual Edge Hill username and password. Because the system is integrated you can add contacts using their Edge Hill ID so for example I could be added just by typing in goulds in the add contact field. The person you add has to accept your request before you can start sending messages (after all John Cater doesn’t want 4000 people in his contact list pestering him endlessly!).

In our trials it proved a very popular way of keeping in touch for our department as you can get information quickly without the hassle and formality of email and unlike a phone call if the person isn’t around you can see that they are offline or set to away and either leave a message for them to see when they come back or wait until they are available.

I’m quite looking forward to see how Spark performs and what the uptake is like from staff. The new GO portal will also have a jabber plug-in and I can see it being a very popular way for students to communicate with each other. Of course their are implications about its use in classrooms and potential abuse but we will have to take that in our stride as we finally start testing out in the real world.

Here is a preview of what the spark interface looks like, as you can see it’s quite similar in design to popular IM software like MSN and Yahoo Messenger: (click for bigger picture)
Spark client

If you go down to Woodlands today…

.. you’re sure of a big surprise, sadly it doesn’t involve picnics. I was down there yesterday with the Education ICT Support team (Howard, James C and James W from Learning Services) reconfiguring some of the IT equipment. We managed to get through a lot despite a few little problems that took some time to sort, luckily the LS boys know their software image back to front and were able to create an innovative solution there and then! I spent most of my time working on the Woodlands wireless network. It’s now reconfigured to match the settings from Ormskirk so that laptop users from both sites are able to roam between the two networks without having to change settings every time. Howard’s team re-ghosted the classroom machines and they are all now been updated to the latest software image with all of the summer changes on, the laptops updates are soon to follow. It was quite a long day and we didn’t get back to Ormskirk till nearly seven. Here are a couple of pictures of the Woodlands classroom mid-ghosting.

woodlands 2 woodlands 1

In other news Stephen Timson is departing our team to go and work in a new role with the Core Services team. Ste looked after all of our images and the zenworks software delivery and his flair for creative problem solving will be sorely missed. Best of luck to him in his new job from everyone in Tech Services!

We have some other news about updates that are going on with the software images that I’ll put on in the next couple of days.