Lecturing – Usability and Web2.0

Alan Dix I had a lot of fun yesterday, my good friend Alan invited me to come up to Lancaster to do a special guest lecture on Usability and Web2.0 – I was asked to talk about the demands Web2.0 put on real world development, and the usability issues we now face. The lecture was intended mainly for his undergraduates but he invited the MSc, MRes and PHD students to attend as well.

I must confess I was very nervous it’s been a long time since I’ve had to stand up and talk for ninety minutes – I had also spent much of the weekend trying to prepare my slides and work out how to I was going to talk, intelligently, on a subject area that encompasses so much. I have to thank Richard Wallis and Rob Styles, two of my friends at Talis who both provided me with some great advice last week when I approached them and said “arrghhhh I’m panicking!I know what I want to say I’m not sure how to structure it“, fortunately they both gave me some great advice so I spent the weekend trying to organise my thoughts.

In the end it was fine, I really enjoyed the session and Alan did his best not to embarrass me ( too much 😉 ). I started by talking a little bit about the Web1.0 and the sorts of usability mistakes  that were common back then ( and perhaps still are now ), I went on to talk about the differences between Web1.0 and Web2.0. I then focused on Web2.0 and the kinds of usability problems that we are having to consider and find solutions to at the moment and tried to cover broad range – technology, accessibility, identity, authority, privacy etc. I also talked about Search as a usability problem, and how we still can’t find what were looking for, I explained why this leads me to believe that Google is broken. This flowed nicely into the final part of my talk which focused on the semantic web and some of the work we’re doing at Talis.

The slides for my presentation are now available online here.

Google revamp SearchMash with Flash

I’ve been using Google’s SearchMash for a while now. However it hasn’t been updated in a while … that is until now. A new Flash based version of SearchMash is now available for people to experiment with. I’m really enjoying using the new version, when you single click on a search result you get a preview pane with a thumbnail of the site along with other information. Whilst it might be argued that the Flash version is slower than the original AJAX based version, the new version is a big leap forward in terms of it’s aesthetics. I am curious as to whether releasing a Flash version of SearchMash was a tit-for-tat response to Microsoft’s SilverLight based Tafiti. I guess the difference between the two is that whilst the new Flash based version of SearchMash is more aesthetically pleasing than the original, it’s still very usable. The problem with Tafiti is that whilst it is gorgeous, I find myself falling back to Google or SearchMash because the results are presented more clearly and simply.

Try it out for yourself: http://www.searchmash.com/flash/search/

It requires Flash version 9.

Towards the web of intentions

My colleague Paul visited Cambridge recently and gave an excellent talk around some of our emerging ideas about the role that Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web can play in taking us towards the ‘Web of Intentions’. Even though I work with Paul and these ideas are familiar to me, I was still amazed at how well he managed to illustrate those ideas in this presentation. You can watch the talk below:


More semantic web ramblings over a curry …

This is turning into a habit 🙂 My colleague, Keith Alexander, is in town this week and staying at a fancy hotel in the city centre. He’s not familiar with brum so I agreed to show him around a little and grab a bite to eat. After the briefest tour of Birmingham city centre in history we decided to find somewhere to eat and ended up at Festival Balti in the Arcadian Centre.

We spent ages talking about various semantic web related issues most of which revolved around the sorts of the things we’d like to use the Talis Platform for as well as talking about the sort of features we’d like to see in the platform, the current limitations in our api’s but the upcoming features that will address these limitations. We talked about the applications we are building and how they are converging onto similar technology stacks, opening up the prospect of more discrete component reuse.

Our discussion also ranged from comparisons between Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous and Morville’s Ambient Findability,  to the very nature or vision Semantic Search. We talked about how useful Microformat’s could be and the benefits as well as the problems with current initiatives being undertaken within the FireFox community to build Microformat detection directly into FireFox 3

With reference to search I think we both agreed that the future of search lay in addressing the current problem with Google Search, the fact that the search does not take the user’s context into account. We came up with some ideas about how we might be able to capture this information. We talked about how RDF lends itself to being able to merge together data from heterogeneous domains and why this might be the most appropriate medium through which to achieve this.

I’ve only touched on the diverse subjects we talked about but one thing did stand out – how much Keith knows about the semantic web! It’s a passion of his and it’s something he’s been blogging about over at http://semwebdev.keithalexander.co.uk/blog/.

I can’t help but reflect on the fact  that  our development group at Talis comprises of a group of individuals who are extremely passionate about this particular topic or problem space, whether or not they have been drawn together by design or pure chance (our HR team may take exception to that :p), the fact remains that we have brought together and incredibly talented group of people that really want to solve these problems and develop something that is… well for want of a better word … incredible.

It all reminds me of something G.W.F Hegel once wrote:

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion”

Book: The Cult of the Amateur

I just finished reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, a highly provocative and controversial book that argues that the net’s user generated content is in fact destroying our culture.  Keen decries everything he believes to be wrong with the Web 2.0 which is namely the mediocre work of amateurs:

… democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent. As I noted earlier, it is threatening the very future of our cultural institutions. I call it the great seduction. The Web 2.0 revolution has peddled the promise of bringing more truth to more people—more depth of information, more global perspective, more unbiased opinion from dispassionate observers. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment. The information business is being transformed by the Internet into the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all simultaneously talking about themselves.

Moreover, the free, user-generated content spawned and extolled by the Web 2.0 revolution is decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced (“disintermediated,” to use a FOO Camp term) by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists. Meanwhile, the radically new business models based on user-generated material suck the economic value out of traditional media and cultural content.

Keen is an excellent and engaging writer and whilst I dont actually agree with his views I did find them interesting, thought provoking and quite entertaining. I have to be honest, his over the top vitriol against the collaborative and distributed nature of the content generated on the internet in this Web 2.0 world, is at times so over the top that I couldn’t help but laugh.

Keen does raise some very important points about intellectual property, authenticity, authority and even identity and whilst its easy to dismiss some of his vitriol as the rantings of a self proclaimed (although  he was being sarcastic at the time :p ) “disgraceful fascist luddite communist control freak monarchist failed dotcom entrepreneur” ,you can’t dismiss the fact that some of concerns he raises are not only valid but deserve thought – even if you have to dig to see it! 

I also took the time to read one of the articles Keen wrote for the Washington Post in which he likens the promise of Web 2.0 to Marx’s promise of Communism …

Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the ’60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google’s Larry Page. Between the book-ends of Jobs and Page lies the rest of Silicon Valley including radical communitarians like Craig Newmark (of Craigslist.com), intellectual property communists such as Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig, economic cornucopians like Wired magazine editor Chris “Long Tail” Anderson, and new media moguls Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle.

You don’t have to like his views or even agree with them, but it would be a mistake to ignore them entirely. For that reason I think the  The Cult of the Amateur is a valuable text that will hopefully spur on some constructuve debates within the Web 2.0 community. 

Amazon attempting to patent S3

The US Patent and Trademark Office has disclosed Amazon’s latest patent application for a “Distributed storage system with web services client interface” here’s an extract from the abstract:

A distributed, web-services based storage system. A system may include a web services interface configured to receive, according to a web services protocol, a given client request for access to a given data object, the request including a key value corresponding to the object. The system may also include storage nodes configured to store replicas of the objects, where each replica is accessible via a respective unique locator value, and a keymap instance configured to store a respective keymap entry for each object. For the given object, the respective keymap entry includes the key value and each locator value corresponding to replicas of the object. A coordinator may receive the given client request from the web services interface, responsively access the keymap instance to identify locator values corresponding to the key value and, for a particular locator value, retrieve a corresponding replica from a corresponding storage node.

I’m guessing that in light of a recent supreme court ruling this application would not be granted under the strengthened obviousness test as such a patent for a distributed storage system with a web services client interface is about as obvious as you can get. It wasn’t too long ago Amazon failed in their attempt to patent one-click technology which again should have been rejected on the basis of the obviousness test but wasn’t largely because Amazon has a history of bullying the Patent Office … Tim O’Reilly summed up why in this excellent little article.

The more we move towards a Web 2.0 world with applications delivered as SaaS by its very definition were dealing with applications that require distributed storage which is accessible through web services. I’m not knocking S3, its excellent service and Amazon deserve our plaudits for creating such a successful service. S3 isn’t a unique invention it’s simply the putting together of a bunch of technologies already available, and Amazon aren’t unique there are other platform’s available similar to Amazon’s S3 .. Tim might have written the following in reference to the One-Click patent but I believe its equally applicable to this one…

Patents like this are also incredibly short-sighted! The web has exploded because it was an open platform that sparked countless innovations by users. Fence in that platform, and who knows what opportunities will never come to light?

I’m not sure whether Amazon would ever try to enforce this patent and I’m no expert on patent law, it just strikes me as a worrying development.

100 Web Apps for everything you’ll ever need?

Came across this earlier, its a list of the 100 web apps for everything you will ever need. When I consider some of the recent things I’ve written about this idea that applications are moving away from the desktop and delivered primarily over the web, then this list serves to illustrate how wide ranging web based applications are becoming.

The list organises the applications into a set of categories

  • Organisational
  • Calendars and to-do Lists
  • Your Money
  • Project Management & Productivity
  • Storage
  • Writing and Design Tools
  • Security and Privacy
  • Mobility and Contact
  • Meeting and Networking
  • Business and Legal
  • Client Contact and Feedback
  • Website tools
  • Printing and Packaging
  • Tools to give and take
  • Miscellaneous

In addition to the examples on this list there’s other pretty useful applications out there. I’ve been playing around with SnipShot, which allows you to upload images and edit, adjust them online. It doesn’t provide the full functionality of PhotoShop, but it is very simple to use and integrates with Flickr making it far more valuable as a tool than if it worked in isolation.

That’s the real strength of Web based applications? The ever increasing ease with which they can be integrated and used together?