Monthly Archives: October 2007

Is OpenSocial the beginning of the end for Facebook?

Google and partners (including LinkedIn, Hi5, Friendster, Ning and others) are launching a new open API for interfacing with Social Networks. I’m not going to go into it too much because plenty of people have written about it already but I’ll give a few comments.

If you’re looking for one blog to read to get a feel of OpenSocial before all the gory details come out at Google Code then check out what Marc Andreessen has written. He’s the founder of Ning so clearly has an interest in OpenSocial succeeding but cut through the spin and there’s some valid points.

Where does this leave Facebook? At the moment it’s still the largest social network amongst university students so ignoring it doesn’t make sense. What OpenSocial allows is for developers to avoid vendor lock-in by writing applications for multiple platforms. Where previously there was no clear second choice to base features and implementation around, now there is a large aggregate user base to target. It will help developers to write cleaner code which can more easily be repurposed for new platforms, even alternative interfaces such as mobile phones.

This is also a pretty canny move from Google. Their own social network, Orkut, while big in Brazil has not found a significant following in the major markets. By introducing a system based on standards – the API is based on JavaScript and HTML – they’re lowering the barriers to developers by not requiring them to learn another markup or query language as is the case with Facebook.

Ultimately while this move might be supporting the growth of rival social networks, Google’s dominance and the sheer quantity of data it holds about everyone will enable it to grow Orkut and its other social websites (Documents, Talk, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, Calendar and the rest all have further scope to become more social).

Fear of Facebook?!

I had an interesting discussion with Brian Kelly (from UKOLN) earlier and he alerted me to an article in The Independent from last week entitled “Networking sites: Professors – keep out“.

As I will be speaking at the forthcoming “Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs And Social Networks” event next month I was interested to see what all the fuss was about so I read with interest.

The article highlighted a number of perceived issues with University staff getting involved in social networks. However I tend to disagree with the majority of them!

Last year we launched the Hi – Applicant website. It’s not ‘a Facebook’ but it does have features which allow applicants to chat (unmoderated!) to each other, view others profiles and form communities. Our staff got involved in answering queries (both formerly and informerly) in topics ranging from ‘am I entitled to a bursary’ to ‘what’s your favourite soup’ and we didn’t witness a revolt as many would expect. Why?! Well I believe it’s because we were open about University life, we gave applicants the freedom to discuss what they liked, how they liked and when they liked. We encouraged them to ‘be a community’ and it worked well for us.

I view Facebook in the same way. I don’t think we should be telling people to use it but I don’t believe we should discourage it’s use either. Yes some students may be outraged that their lecturer ‘be-friended’ them but others may think it’s pretty cool to be able to see a ‘real life’ side of the person who’s teaching them. It’s all down to individuals preferences and Facebook really does mean you can pick and choose. You don’t have to accept a ‘friend’ invitation, nor do you have to join a group but the fact is you can if you want to.

I do wonder why there is such a perceived fear of Facebook. I even struggle with the issue some people have with using it to store information. I wouldn’t advocate using it store all your files and photos but if it’s a medium to share copies of these then great. If Facebook want to claim the IPR on the copy of the information you put on their site – no problem. I can do what I want with my ‘original’ copy so I don’t have an issue.

Facebook is great because it’s evolved. It’s not a prescriptive site. It has developed the way the users have wanted it to and so why worry so much about how our students are engaging with it?! If they are then cool. Let’s get in their and do some stuff too but if not then we’ve plenty of other channels to go on.

I’d never advocate a Facebook (or any other social networking site) route for all communications or learning but as a complement to everything else I am prepared to Feel the Fear but do it anyway…

Web Design Survey 2007

A List Apart SurveyA List Apart published the findings of their annual survey of web people a couple of weeks ago and I’ve only just had time to read through the lengthy document.

It’s well worth a read for any web professional and they’ve also published anonymous data so you can crunch your own stats but they’ve got some interesting and amusing results. Here’s my highlights:

  • Second most popular method of staying current is “Trial and error”
  • Significant differences in the amount of training given to different jobs – 70% of accessibility and usability experts but under 50% of writers and editors
  • Both of these areas are amongst the rarest claimed skills
  • Project managers are the most satisfied and designers amongst the most unsatisfied 🙂

Take a look and leave a comment with the stats you find interesting!

IET.tv: video sharing for techies

IET LogoLast night I attended a talk by Christophe Gobel and Kim someone-who’s-name-I-don’t-remember jointly organised by the IET and the BCS on IPTV. I’ve never been to an IET/BCS talk before but since a) the topic sounded fairly interesting and b) it was a bit of a family get together – both parents and brother work(ed) in IT – so thought I’d give it a go.

The first part of the talk gave an overview of IPTV technologies and distribution methods showing penetration, costs and services offered. There was a short video presented by David Sandham at the International Broadcasting Conference talking to delegates from across the industry about what IPTV meant to them.

Then the focus changed. While a lot of attention in the IPTV market is being given to large companies investing in Cable or DSL infrastructure to deliver multi-channel services down the line over IP, the IET have adopted a different approach for their technologies. They’re creating a Web TV service called IET.tv built around an existing community of volunteer members and partnered companies to deliver content. This in itself isn’t particularly new – many organisations have been delivering video over the web for some time – but what’s different here is their adoption of Web 2.0 ideas and applying them to their community.

IET.tv has a lot of content produced by the organisation themselves but where it starts to get interesting is their systems to allow video to be uploaded. Universities can upload research seminars, corporate partners can showcase products and services and grass roots members of the IET will be able to upload their own local talks to give them a wider audience.

They did a demonstration of uploading a video and it provides more than just simple upload facilities. You can upload a corresponding PowerPoint presentation and synchronise the video and slides automatically. Once it’s uploaded you can even change the linked media to use a web page, flash video, image or many other formats. The demonstrations showed uploading already produced video but apparently it supports live and scheduled streaming as well.

It looked a little bit like the Vcasmo service that Brian Kelly talked about in August but seemed to offer much more flexibility (at the cost of easy of use, but there was a wizard interface for most uses). I have a suspicion that they didn’t develop everything in-house. They said they bought in media servers – currently Real/Helix and Windows Media soon to add Quicktime and then Flash (don’t understand why people don’t just standardise on Flash – it’s the best format around at the moment) – but they didn’t mention a provider for the video/presentation synchronisation technology.

I asked if the service was available to universities for non-research uses and the answer was “not right now”. It’s definitely got applications for teaching and distance learning and their implementation was flexible enough to link in with VLEs and other uses that an institution could think of.

Very briefly I’ll mention another service the IET have just launched in beta. IET Discover is a social bookmarking site aimed at the engineering/technology community. Nice idea and fairly solid implementation complete with browser toolbar but I question whether the world needs another del.icio.us clone. Maybe with the backing of their members they’ll make it work.

CMS: Friend of Foe?

For many the Content Management System is the Holy Grail of development. A single system that looks after your users, manages workflow, controls permissions and produces a consistent design across the site would be fantastic. So with this goal in mind many companies and institutions go looking for a CMS. And there are many to choose from – dozens if not hundreds – ranging from free and open source to systems produced by the biggest software companies in the world. The choice is overwhelming and everyone claims that theirs is the best!

UC Davis conducted a survey last month on what CMS universities in the US use and they got a decent response level – enough to provide some interesting and worthwhile statistics. One of the most interesting findings is that there is no clear leader. Unlike for VLEs there has been little consolidation and no clear market leader has emerged – big corporates are still fighting it out for market share with open source projects.

The potential benefits of using a CMS are massive but I have concerns about their inflexibility and inevitable vendor lock-in. What happens when you want a design that doesn’t fit in with the CMS way of doing things or functionality that can’t be put into a WYSIWYG text box? Is developing within the CMS framework going to save time compared to doing it from scratch?

My view for some time has been that we need to manage our content better. Key information needs to be available for use in multiple places both across our own sites and syndicated to other sites and feeds that visitors can subscribe to. We need to be agile in the way that we collect, store and manage data so that it can be quickly repurposed for whatever new trends and technologies come around the corner. Can the current generation of CMS handle this challenge? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out!

Where to stop?!

I’m currently working on some project plans for our website. We have undertaken a project, along with Corporate Marketing, to bring together all of our communications under the same umbrella (same design, theme etc). In theory the concept is great, we’ll be working with some great creatives and it gives us an opportunity to really look at our communications and what we want from them. In practice however it’s difficult to know where we should stop.

Alongside the creative developments we’ll be using the opportunity to do a lot of development work on the site; re-developing our eProspectus, news facility and embedding some of the Hi features into the Prospective Student area but in terms of what we ‘could’ do that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The website is an ever moving target. I don’t believe we ever feel that we have completed a job. The launch of the site is really the beginning of it’s life and we need to be constantly switched on to ensure it is doing it’s job correctly which is to inform and engage our users.

The possibilities for the Edge Hill site are endless. The success of Hi has taught us many lessons about the positive way in which less formal communications are recieved. We know from Go feedback that the personalisation and customisation aspects are of benefit and so we really want to embed the lessons learnt into all new development projects. However the project needs a plan and the team need targets so a line must be drawn somewhere.

So for now we’ll concentrate on our Prospective Students – getting them to the right information as quickly as possible and ensuring they engage with the content and come back! So back to the plan…

Get more from go.talk

Jabber LogoWe’ve been running a Jabber/XMPP server here for a few months now and with it being part of the new GO portal it’s probably about time to say a little bit more about it. Technical Services have been dealing with the roll out of the client to desktop machines and I’ve been looking after the server side of things along with the web client embedded in GO.

Spark ClientThe server is open to everyone with an Edge Hill username and password and you’re free to connect in from home or even via a mobile client. The desktop client we’ve gone for internally is based on Spark – it’s really easy to use yet has some pretty advanced features lurking underneath for those who need them.

Your login ID is username@edgehill.ac.uk (not the fancy firstname.surname@edgehill.ac.uk style email address which some people have) and the server name is edgehill.ac.uk. That should be all you need to get online! Once you’re connected you’ll need to add some contacts – just click the “Add a contact” button and enter the username to make the request.

The service has some fairly advanced features for those that wish to take advantage of them:

  • Conferences: join an existing conference room or create your own for private discussion.
  • Links to other IM networks. If you use Yahoo, MSN/Live Messenger, AIM, ICQ or Google Talk they you can link your account with the other services so all your contacts show in one list.
  • Interconnect with other IM networks direct! Some other networks are based on the XMPP protocol so for these you can add contacts directly – try it out with a Gmail address for a Google Talk user. A number of other UK universities are also using Jabber and we’re working to interconnect with them.
  • Twitter via IM: if you’ve caught the Twitter bug you can link your account so you can send and receive status updated via IM.
  • Get instant notifications of feed updates. Start a chat with feeds@edgehill.ac.uk and send the word “help” for more information. This works great with a service like del.icio.us to receive notifications when people in your network bookmark a site.

Most of these services are also available via the web version of go.talk (although there are a few bugs when doing things like searching for conference rooms) so you can access all this from anywhere you have a network connection. So log in, try it out and let us know what you think. If you work for another organisation and have a Jabber server then post a comment and we’ll try to get them talking to each other.

Google shift up a Gear

Since Google announced Gears in May there’s been little concrete news on what’s going to be offline enabled next. On Friday, Google released a technical demonstration of putting Blogger offline using the new API. Nice, but make with the good stuff Google! Writing blog entries in a text editor while offline isn’t too much trouble but taking Calendar, Gmail, Docs & Spreadsheets offline would be really useful.

No official confirmation has come out of the Googleplex but TechCrunch is reporting the Gmail may be next. Douglas Crockford’s recent trip to Google raving about Gears shows some momentum building behind the platform which is more interesting because he’s from Yahoo. If nothing else, it might encourage a few more developers to build Gears into other applications – WordPress maybe…?

New Google quick links format?

Google SearchI’ve just noticed Google has a different format for grouping a set of links under one result – when searching for Edge Hill University for example. They’ve been doing this kind of thing for a while but not in the two column format and I don’t know what Google calls this format so can’t search to find when it changed!

It seems to work well – I certainly noticed it more and while it could do with some refinement – or maybe our pages could do with a little more SEO TLC – so it’s worth us looking at these pages in a bit more detail.