23 July 2009

The Future of Computing

Stop for a moment to think about how you use your computer. Are you a producer or a consumer? or like so many of us these days, do you fall into both categories.

At the moment a lot of companies are talking about Cloud computing. Google are already there with their online Google documents service and Microsoft are soon to be following with their Windows Live service. What does it all mean for the future of computing? Well now is a good time to have a look at what I like to refer to as the 'Media Lifecycle', a concept which will be familiar to any graduate computing student. In my mind the media lifecycle consists of four parts.

The first part is about the creation of media and has always been about you doing whatever it is you do. Maybe you're an amateur film-maker or musician or you have a website about your hobbies. This part of the cycle is about content creation. In the past you might have recorded your film using a DV-camera (or even a VHS or betamax camera if you go back that far?). Perhaps you used to get together with a group of friends and record your jamming sessions onto a cheap four-track recorder. Maybe you used to draw sketches which you would then scan into your computer to produce graphics for your websites.

The second part of the media lifecycle is almost as time consuming if not more so. Once you created your masterpieces you probably needed to edit them in some way. If you're a film-maker perhaps you needed to transfer your DV-tape to your laptop or computer and then make use of some video editing software. Likewise with audio, perhaps you had to record your old 4-track tape into your computer and then convert it to mp3 with a specific bitrate or quality setting. In short you were converting your work into something suitable for hosting by a content provider. Even if you were building a website, you would be processing the content you want to use and wrapping it all up in a layer of hypertext (HTML) so that it could be hosted somewhere.

This brings us to the third part of the media lifecycle and its the one currently undergoing a revolution. The third part is about hosting your content. In the past it was the service providers who were responsible for the entire second part of the lifecycle. It is the hosting companies who impose limitations on our creativity as we are forced to comply with their restrictions. Stock photography websites have always insisted that our photos fit into their specific filetype, filesize and image quality requirements. Youtube has limits on the length of video clips you can upload and the social photographers website Flickr currently imposes a 100MB limit for your total picture uploads per month. Yet we have been happy to accept these limitations because we might just get some small reward for our efforts, be it recognition or some miniscule financial gain.

The final part of the lifecycle is the end user, which lets face it is every single one of us who has access to the internet and it's a number which keeps going up. So what exactly is going on with the media lifecycle and why is it important?

First of all lets have a look at what is happening in part 1 of the media lifecycle. We are now seeing devices which bypass the second part completely. Older DV cameras are being replaced by devices like the Flip ultra which records in a format that can be directly uploaded to Youtube. You just plug in via the USB interface and the video footage can be quickly uploaded without any time-consuming editing. I expect a lot more of these service-friendly devices to emerge, especially in the audio market. Amateur musicians may no longer have mp3.com to showcase their talent but other providers such as slicethepie.com have taken over. You can even submit albums to Apples iTunes store via Tunecore for a small annual sum (useful if you already have a small fan-base).

In the next few years I would expect this sort of functionality to be built into a lot more creative devices (musical instruments, multitrack recorders, cameras etc). I also suspect we will see wi-fi added to a lot of these and the addition of a settings page for your preferred service to upload to (and the necessary username and password fields). Your next stock photo submission may be submitted while you sleep after using a menu option to tag the pictures you want to upload.

I also expect to see something similar for graphic artists. Perhaps some sort of touch sensitive tablet-PC built using one of the various linux distributions, possibly using the Gimp graphics editor. I suspect this will be a revolutionary device for graphic artists which will allow them to draw anywhere and then upload to their preferred clip-art library when they stumble into a wi-fi hotspot. Who knows, maybe the devices will be part-subsidised by the clip-art libraries they are tied to in the same way that mobile phones are discounted here when they are locked to the various mobile networks.

So now we are in the process of removing much of the second part of the media lifecycle, what will be the end result? Well it all depends on us as media consumers. The logical progression for the hosting companies is to take over the creative process as well. This is where cloud computing comes in. We already have Google documents (do I need to point out blogger?) and now Microsoft is following with Windows Live. In the future we will probably see all sorts of creative products from these net giants. Modern digital workstations like FL Studio are already replacing the traditional home recording studio. Why spend money on outboard effects units when there are so many plug-in VST effects which do the same thing digitally and many of them are free. So I expect there to be a whole new breed of applications software, possibly free to us with hefty license fees paid by large hosting companies. That's good for us is what you're probably thinking right now.

It sounds great on the surface but what happens if the host service is forced out of business? It's always a possibility as the recent financial services sector has shown us all too well. What if your digital business suddenly dies as a result of problems in the hosting company. Well one group of people have noticed these free web services tend to die out and as a result they launched the Tonido project. I advise everyone to become familiar with the concept as otherwise we are destined for a great fall.

In a nutshell, the people at Tonido are saying why bother editing your content and then having it published on a hosting server? Why not host it yourself from your own desktop? Well there's one obvious reason. When my desktop is off, so is remote access to my files. This got me thinking though. Yes companies like Google and Youtube are very rarely offline and there's no way your home computer could service a hundred million content requests simultaneously, but how many of us are working on that scale anyway? I've seen a lot of web-developement systems recently and the majority of them use some sort of micro-server for testing. These act as a local web-server, serving content to just the end user but without any complicated set-up process. With over 9 years of IIS experience now, I can tell you that this is a god-send for students.

So what if we opt to keep control of our content for ourselves? Well it could have some interesting consequences. We might not get the cheap subsidised productivity software (which we don't have much of anyway), but there's still freeware. As for the consistent online storage and web-presence, maybe we will all have an extra storage folder with a micro-server framework. Services like Google could cache this for when we are offline and scale up availability for sudden surges in demand. How would they finance this? Possibly by having targetted advertising on the cached versions. It would be our web-server cache though, showing off our content in a way that we control. If we start working on the standards now, we might even be able to dictate what we as the end users want from the net giants. If not... well there's always blogger.

16 July 2009

Why Twitter could be the first social network I ditch

A week or so later and my initial Twitter enthusiasm is beginning to wane. It seemed so promising. A combination of the worlds biggest forum and instant messenger. So why is it failing me?

Part of the problem is its simplicity. It seems as though almost everyone on the planet is taking to twitter because it's so easy. This will also be the reason for its demise. There are too many people out there using Twitter to push products. Every other person who opts to follow you is some sort of marketer just trying to persuade you to part with your hard-earned. They do it with jokes, with funny images and links and then they also just happen to mention a great product which they found out about by accident which they decided to start selling. It's the same as when the internet took off and all of a sudden it became more difficult to find anything useful or of value because some early marketers realised the potential of being on the first page of the search engines results. It annoys me no end to search for something on Google, only to follow a promising link which turns out to be an affiliate page which has somehow got ahead of the real pages with content.

Can twitter ever be saved? Well I've already discovered posts and web-pages mentioning automated tweets which totally goes against Twitters terms of service. It will be interesting to see if Twitter does anything about this. I have heard they suspended some accounts a while back but got the algorithm wrong and so suspended a lot of people who they then had to reinstate. The marketers would do well to remember that the text box on their tweet says "What are you doing?" not "What are you Selling?". Then again what would someone reply if they were busy trying to sell products? Perhaps Twitter should consider its policy on commercial use instead. After all who would want to watch a TV station which screened nothing but advertisements? This is the tunnel that twitter is approaching. All these automated product adverts are not what we as a society want. We are being deprived of the interesting stuff out there because of the 'Rogue Element' as I will refer to them. Two recent webcasts I have enjoyed learning about via twitter and watching were also plagued with tweets spamming film download sites.

In short Twitter needs to offer channels. By this I mean complex filters and priority tweets. There's a certain amount that can be accomplished with favourites but it doesn't go far enough. You see it's the mundane everyday which causes the problem. My friend Bob McAnyone from the other side of the world might be doing lots of interesting techie things while he's at work and then when he goes home I'm getting tweets about watching the yankees or his local league baseball results. In short, I know Bob is a nice guy and I can learn from him but I might not be that interested in what sports he follows. This is where filtering comes in. Removing his sports tweets means I get useful comments from all the people I follow. I might be interested in hearing anything the 1-2,000 people I follow have to say about Silverlight but that doesn't mean I want to hear their Mac experiences. Fortunately there are applications out there like Tweetdeck which allow you to see your friends and favourites in different boxes. If only it had multiple filters!!!!

Why it's a good time to be in Computing

A couple of years back we faced a dilemma. Should we attempt to upgrade all our workstations to Windows Vista, or keep using XP. In part, a lack of investment was responsible for keeping us tied to the Windows XP platform but problems with obtaining drivers for Windows Vista didn't help the situation. We are now however facing a new challenge in the form of Windows 7. The difference is that this time it is likely to run on our existing equipment so it is more likely that we will upgrade.

There are many changes coming via Microsoft at the moment. They are planning to release their applications in cloud format, so you could soon be using word in your web-browser in the same way that you can already use Google docs. If that wasn't enough they are also pushing the idea of private clouds so larger enterprises can host their own private cloud systems. Many might be reluctant to use this though as there's always a safety net of having files on your own machine. There's also confidentiality to be considered.

Still when you consider that we are going to see Office 2010, Visual Studio 2010 and Windows 7 all within a close schedule, it's clear that anyone in computing is soon going to be very busy. Add to this mixture emerging technologies like Adobe Air, MS Silverlight and the MS Web Framework for developers and suddenly you get some idea of the increasing demand for IT professionals. Then there's the Google Chrome O/S for netbooks. Microsoft is quick to laugh this off but they obviously haven't seen what IT people like me are saying about Android. Further developments to Android are already underway and I'm just dying to get the Eee version installed on one of our netbooks. Will Android be as useful without the mobile phone hardware though? Well time will tell. I'm also looking forward to the next version of LiveAndroid which can be run under Virtual PC. This could be really useful for our students who are developing Android applications.

So Microsoft are taking on Google with their Bing search engine and online Office while Google are retaliating with their netbook operating system. All of this market crossover will create more need for people who know how to use these systems and can train others. The economic situation may be dire but something tells me that I'll be able to ride the wave this time. I don't remember the last time we saw this surge in driving forces in the IT industry.

7 July 2009

Social Media - At last I get it

As I posted the other day, I have finally jumped on the twitter bandwagon as a result of playing with a HTC Magic. I never saw the point before but now I sort of get it.

I would describe twitter as being a cross between the worlds biggest forum and the worlds biggest instant messenger application. People are 'tweeting' all the time and following them can bring a greater feeling of connectivity. In my first day of using twitter I probably discovered more about what's going on in the tech world than in the whole previous week of normal surfing. I was getting news about things going on in my local area before it was broadcast on local radio. I also found out about the fire at a seattle (I think?) datacentre which took down geocaching.com and authorise.net.

The sheer number of twitterers and the ability to search their conversations is what provides the power, but it comes at a price. Twitter is now so popular that it is going the same way the internet did, being used by commercial enterprises small and large as a way to push products and services. Cue Plurk, already a year old and with some interesting features.

With twitter, you can update your facebook page. With Plurk you can update twitter (and so also facebook). The user interface of Plurk is a little different with its timeline display and there's a suspiciously bad keyboard response time which suggests either dodgy coding or key-logging going on in the background. Yet there are some advantages to using Plurk. For one thing, their widget displays on my blog even though I've got scripts turned off in slimbrowser. By comparison I have to turn scripting on to view my tweets. So straight away Plurks are more likely to be visible. Their widget also looks more presentable than twitters, featuring an avatar and some basic details. There is also the option to release private Plurks which are only viewable to your close friends.

So what does it all mean? I think I hinted at it on twitter yesterday. Twitter is great but its an unending stream of information which is now so popular that it needs to scale its features. You can already see topic trends from the twitter page but what it really needs now is good filtering. I want to know when someone talks about Android or windows 7 but I want to know in real-time. Yes I can do a search but if someone said something useful last week it will be obscured by 200 companies tweeting about their cut-down pricing of said products today. I've also discovered that certain websites are tweeting content that they published online 6 months ago. The twitter trends have shown that the max shelf-life of such info is probably a week at most.

No doubt someone will tell me about twitter add-ons that provide this sort of filtering. The addition of Twhirl is already half-way there but I want to sample the whole stream for my chosen topics, not just filter it to a subset of the people I'm already following.

Perhaps one of the most surprising insights into twitter is the ability to track trends using websites like http://twist.flaptor.com/trends?gram=work&span=168. The high appearance of the word 'work' in tweets might be just the incentive large organisations like the NHS need to reverse their policy on social networking sites. One of the comments I got back from my recent photography work for the local Sanity Fare event was that people working for the NHS couldn't see the pictures because the site was blocked. Comments to social media sites tend to occur because we are naturally multi-tasking in my oppinion. While it's true we all need to be professional in our work lives, there is no way any organisation can really block everything given the availability of the internet via mobile phones. I am reminded at this stage about the teacher who posted some quite negative comments about her enthusiasm levels and classes. Should she have been suspended for publishing her own oppinions because her employers did not like what they read?

It's the tired old justification of blocking such sites. "You work for us during these hours and that's all you can do during these hours". It's a very blinkered approach to the issue of work/life balance. I am fortunate indeed that my employer has no such policy. Without twitter I would not have learned about Moblin, augmented reality, yesterdays 'Reboot Britain' event, tiny urls and all sorts of technologies and informative news items. Howard Rheingolds closing presentation at Reboot Britain yesterday is proof enough for me that education IS going to change. The mixture of live video feed, live twitter and blog updates added something extra to all the presentations. It was the interactive element which didn't disrupt the presentation which kept me alert and hooked on what was happening. I've seen Chris Pirillo use something similar on his youtube reviews. The mixture of presentation and real-time comments works and creates a more engaging, more informative experience. Surely this is what education is all about.

3 July 2009

The Summer of Magic

At last it's the time of year when all our academics start going away on their summer holidays and we get time to prepare for September and more importantly some time to try out new software & hardware which may need installing for next semester.

This year I've got a new best friend in the form of the HTC magic which I've been trying out for the last couple of weeks. I have to say that so far I've been more impressed with this phone than any of the others in our mobile networking equipment vault.

Lets start with the negatives though because there really aren't that many. The main drawback is Androids current lack of easy changable proxy settings. I've been playing with this phone at home simply because I couldn't use it on our wi-fi network here because of the proxy. The second problem is that the incoming SMS sound only plays once. Not good if you weren't within 20ft of your phone when it went off. This is a minor problem though and can be fixed by using a long mp3 track as your notification sound. My six minute repeating sonar track works a treat and I haven't missed any messages since. The next problem I found was that the dial pad keeps locking when you try to access voicemail. This is more of an annoyance than a problem as you just have to tap the screen a couple of times to unlock it. It's just annoying when you're trying to follow a speaking menu ('If you want to wait a long time... press 7' type thing). And my final gripe is that nobody seems to have tested the functionality without an internet connection. I don't have a data tarif so the first time I went to the calendar it wouldn't do anything without a google login which I couldn't do at the time as I was away from my access points. After logging in the first time though this feature is available without a connection and it will synchronise when you next connect.

So it sounds like quite a negative review so far? Well forget it. These are all trivial complaints and can be easily overcome by the tech-savvy. This phone is not only gorgeous to look at, it has the Android O/S which must be one of the most intuitive user interfaces ever designed. I've looked at the manual about twice so far (mainly for setting up the wi-fi link). Every part of Android seems really intuitive and well thought out which is why this is the first phone in our networking kit which I actually want to go out and buy for myself (the competition of Nokias E90 communicator, N96 and even HTC's win mobile-6 powered touch-pro just don't get anywhere near this usable). Even the calculator is simple and intuitive which is a good test of whether the manufacturer wants you to adapt to their product (* instead of x buttons) or vice versa.

Not only that, it was a doddle to set up my home email accounts on this phone, supporting standard pop3 protocols instead of requiring me to go through the mobile operators system. Yay I now have wi-fi email access that doesn't cost me extra. Superb and a refreshing change from every other phone I've owned personally over the past decade. This is the difference with Android though. It is Linux based and customisable to the n-th degree as I discovered when I set up another access point at work and started browsing through the Android Market.

I was astounded by the number of free applications available and the level of customisation they bring to your phone. I have already installed a trekkie tricorder app which gives you a visual display of all sorts of environment details such as local wi-fi spots and cell information. I also installed an app called chompSMS which gives you a threaded view of SMS conversations with word balloons which can be customised. I also installed Meebo IM which allows me to connect to various IM services and another application called FBabble which connects to my Facebook account. Then I discovered Twidroid, a twitter client and I've finally jumped on the twitter bandwagon just to see how it works. It's great that Twidroid can send a twitter message which can also be sent to update Facebook. Life may be boring around here at the moment but within the first hour of signing up, half a dozen people were already following my twitter feed. Not only that but I was getting local news feeds about a bank raid before I'd even had chance to hear it on local radio. Now I get what twitter is about, it's a cross between IM and a forum and you can even eavesdrop on other peoples conversations to find out what they're talking about.

Still I digress, I was talking about the HTC magic. What more can I say really? It's touch sensitivity and intuitive interface make it a delight to use. It's expanding market makes it highly customisable and it's got me using thigs like twitter which I never expected to take an interest in. It puts the 'personal' back into personal computing and the addition of a bluetooth keyboard and data tarif would make my computing experience truly mobile. Even the browser is usable although occasionally slow. The on-screen keyboard is a little fiddly but then you get the superb predictive text which shows the words it thinks you're trying to enter above the keypad. There's even a single button for '.com' to save time. Then I discovered there's a user dictionary so I can add my own words to the predictive text system. Suddenly I can find my own frequently used usernames in the predictive text links. In short this is the first time I've felt like the phone is trying to figure out what I want, rather than me having to understand its syntax and quirks.

So what now? Well I'm going to enjoy using this phone for a while before jumping in to buy my own. This phone has already got some competition in the form of the HTC Hero with its Hero-sense Android extension which looks like an even sweeter interface (although the phones extended chin is ugly imho). There's also the Samsung I7500 which has 8GB of onboard memory and a 5mpix camera with a flash. And the iPhone 3G? Well I tend to think Apple products are way over-priced and appeal most to a 'certain crowd'. You know who you are... design trumps functionality... not in my book!