The network is the computer

Google announced a bunch of stuff last week, finally bringing to the mainstream some bits of tech that have been bubbling away for a few years now.

One is the Chrome operating system, a lightweight OS for netbooks that pretty much hand everything over to the web. So, the OS handles keyboard and mouse inputs and that sort of thing, but basically just boots into a browser and lets you do all your stuff online.

After all, with developments in web technology, who needs software anyway? Google Docs does most of the stuff people who need an office suite use, Picnik is a pretty cool image editor, Gmail is a far better mail client than Outlook is and tools like Huddle and Basecamp provide neat ways of organising your work and collaborating on projects.

Even big, enterprisey software is available through the web now. Salesforce provides a pretty comprehensive CRM offering, Kashflow does the same for accounting, and sites like Netsuite and SAP’s Business by Design provide boring ERP software in the browser.

This is the part of cloud computing known as software-as-a-service. Learning Pool‘s stuff runs on very similar lines: our customers have no software to install, and therefore no patches or upgrades to worry about. Everything can be accessed from anywhere with a browser and a connection to the net.

Anyway, back to Google and Chrome OS. Here’s a video with the skinny:

The idea of the online operating system isn’t new – here’s a review of a previous attempt called YouOS (now sadly dead) that I wrote back in March 2006 – but developments in cloud computing and the almost ubiquitous availability of decent speed broadband (ok, it’s not everywhere yet, especially in rural locations) make it a much more realistic proposition.

What’s interesting about the YouOS example is that it included native applications within the OS itself, rather than just pointing people to existing, external apps. I wrote at the time:

The notion of the online desktop is an interesting one, that conjures the image of computer boxes doing nothing other than handling the keyboard, mouse, display and internet connection; and where you can log in with any machine anywhere in the world and get your own desktop. I suspect, though, that the route that YouOS is taking is the wrong one. What the online OS needs to do is not provide the applications, just the means of accessing the applications, which can be developed by other people on other sites, and the means of storing data to be used and shared between those applications.

It seems like I was probably right about this one (it doesn’t happen often).

Chrome OS won’t be made available for existing netbook owners to download and install – although the fact that it is based on an open source project means that someone else could make it happen. This means that it isn’t possible to have a play with it to see how it works, which is a shame.

One thing that you can have a play with – assuming you have access to Google’s Chrome browser (currently my browser of choice, mainly due to the speed and efficiency of the thing) – is the Chrome Web Store.

A healthy proportion of people are pretty comfortable with the idea of app stores – we’ve used them with our iPhones and iPads, and Android phones and Blackberry users have their own stores – reasonably safe places where applications can be found for the device you are using. Linux users have had an app store like experience for years.

Where these differ with the Chrome store is that Google’s offering is all about web apps, those that work within a browser rather than being native applications that you have to download and install onto your computer, or mobile device.

This is something I struggle with slightly, in terms of understanding what the point is. I mean, when a web app is just an app that runs in a browser, and all you have on your system for accessing apps is a browser, what’s the difference between installing an app and just having a bookmark to it in your browser?!

I guess the answer is around a) making it easy for users to find apps, and providing a space for reviews and that sort of thing; b) enabling a more integrated experience between a web app and the system being used; and c) creating a marketplace where paid-for apps can be, well, paid for.

One neat feature is that by using your Google account, you can sync your Chrome web app setup across machines – so if you log into your account on a different computer, albeit still using Chrome, then your apps come with you, which is cool for portability.

Here’s the video:

The good news about the Chrome store is that folk using the Chrome browser on their usual computer can make use of it. There seems to be a couple of example of Chrome web apps which aren’t available for other browsers – TweetDeck being one.

I’m not quite sure why this is, nor indeed if it is a good thing. There’s the possibility of certain apps only being available to users of certain browsers, which isn’t great.

Still, it’s another step forward for the mainstreaming of cloud computing and software-as-a-service in general.

There’s been quite a bit of talk of a government cloud infastructure as well as an app store for public service use. Indeed, some of these ideas are present in the Knowledge Hub project. The USA government has had an app store for a little while now.

As we pass from the age of the stationary microcomputer and the software industry into a world of commodity computing, understanding the benefits of the approach will be vital – and not just for those working in IT. Indeed, the role of IT departments in organisations will almost certainly need a rethink.

6 months of Google

Paul McElvaneyPaul McElvaney, Director at Learning Pool, posts an update on how the company is faring with Google’s suite of enterprise tools for email, calendaring etc.

Learning Pool moved its corporate systems like email, calendaring and document storage into a Google service. I wrote about it at the time but thought we’d do an update on what our experience has been since.

In general terms the move has been a real success. We’ve never lost connectivity, our service is reliable and robust and there are no performance issues. It also lets us work in a different and often more efficient way. All that being the case, there are a few things that are different from what we were used to and in some cases not as good. While these things definitely aren’t as good a reason to despair, they might be useful for someone. Here goes:

  1. The new solution have us no way of managing our desktops in the office. This seemed like a solvable problem but in the end we relented and bought an Active Directory licence which cost about £2,000. Not bad value but we hadn’t budgeted for it and it was a bit of a pain – at least we can print again though!
  2. Connectivity with iphones just isn’t as good as with an Exchange set-up. Things like calendaring are a bit weird and we miss the Exchange set-up for this
  3. Using Outlook isn’t a wonderful experience with Google. In hindsight we should have banned Outlook and forced people to use the Google interface but we may have had a mutiny if we’d one that!
  4. Mail is sometimes unexplainably slow – it always arrives eventually but if its 4 hours late its a bit of a problem. That said if your exchange server goes down, 4 hours looks like a walk in the park!
  5. Google spreadsheets are a real let down – they are fine for managing simple spreadsheets but once you go into an complexity (like introducing a formula for example!) then you are pretty much on a hiding to nothing!
  6. Everything changes a lot – while this is fine in the main and the changes are normally good, things like removing docs offline access caused a stir!
  7. Training is a bit of an issue. I know I know, Learning Pool should be on top of this, but we have struggled to help some of our users learn how to use the technology most effectively. The stuff that Google give you is pretty good but you always need to spend some time with non-technical users so that they are up to speed. When you don’t do this, as we didn’t sometimes, acceptance of the system tanks pretty quickly.

As I said, those things are slightly annoying but we can, and are, living with all of them. Overall, I’d heartedly recommend moving to a Google environment to handle the boring stuff like email and calendars – and whilst the Google productivity apps (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations) can’t quite match the desktop equivalents for features or power, their web enabled sharing and social functions make them a fantastic part of the toolkit, especially for a distributed workforce like ours.

We’re also keeping our eye on developments in places like Los Angeles, where the city government is moving across to Google Apps. Here’s a video explaining why they went for a cloud based solution:

Cloud computing during a catastrophe

DisasterIt often amuses people when they learn I was once a Risk Manager at a County Council. I have no idea why.

One of my roles at the time was to look after business continuity arrangements – in other words, what the organisation did when something terrible happened.

I was well into internet stuff at the time, and I was amused today when I by chance came across a blog post I wrote (in August 2007!) on the Communities of Practice on how a cloud based system like Google Apps could be used in an emergency by a local authority when corporate systems were unavailable.

Obviously Google has fixed a few of the issues I mention – Sites provides wiki functionality and a better way of doing websites than the old web page creator. They still haven’t integrated Blogger yet, though. Also iGoogle seems to have been dropped from the Google Apps inventory.

With G-cloud being a little way off, does anyone have any examples of public sector organisation using the cloud as a contingency digital comms setup? Would be good to hear about it.

Here’s the post:

Google Apps for Your Domain (or Google Apps for short) is a set of Google services which can be set up at a web address of your own choosing. You get fully customisable versions of:

  • Gmail (a web based email system)
  • Calendar (a web based group calendaring system)
  • Docs & Spreadsheets (web based word processor and spreadsheet applications)
  • Talk – instant messaging and voice over IP
  • iGoogle – personalisable web portal
  • Web page creator – does what it says on the tin

It’s free for the first 200 accounts and effectively provides you with a cost free, enterprise level groupware solution.

There are countless situations where Google Apps could be used within the local government context. But one opportunity where it could make a real difference would be within business continuity arrangements. Here are some examples of how it could benefit an organisation undergoing a crisis:

Safe Web Pages

The Shire Hall is burning down, and the web server has melted. How to get the required message out to web visitors? Use the web domain you get with the Google Apps account as a backup webspace, a simple site with emergency details already up which can be activated when required. Because it’s held on Google’s servers, the information is safe from the disaster. You should be able to get your .gov.uk web address forwarding to this one in no time, so visitors wouldn’t be inconvenienced.

The system used to generate the web pages is overly simple and you can’t do too many exciting things with them. But for getting a message across in an emergency, they do the job.

Communications on the move

So, if the web server is dead, chances are the email server will be too. Communications in an emergency can be a very tricky business and having as many possible routes as possible for different groups to talk to each other is vital. Email without doubt has a role to play and some Councils already have web based accounts created, with services like Hotmail, in readiness for such a crisis. These accounts can be accessed from any computer with a web connection, which makes it much more viable as a communications medium.

However, Google Apps provides email addresses @yourdomain.com which has obvious benefits in terms of presentation – it looks a lot more professional if you are contacting external organisations. But the real advantages lie in the power of the Gmail interface that you get. For a start, there are 2 gigabytes of storage space for each account – meaning that no emails have to be deleted for space saving purposes. Secondly, the email can be accessed using any mobile device, whether by downloading the client from Google or just by accessing it through your phone or PDA’s web browser.

Key Documents Always Available

Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets service provides a simple word processor and spreadsheet which run within the web browser. You therefore don’t need any other software installed on your machine and as the documents are stored online, you know you are getting access to the latest versions. It also makes it a lot easier to collaborate on documents, for example a spreadsheet giving status updates.

Another use for this service would be to have copies of key documents saved online in this shared space. Such documents could include procedures for vital tasks to be completed in an emergency, staff lists, property plans, contact details, contract records etc.

Instant Status Updates

Google Talk, the instant messaging client, is built into the email interface and provides another method of communication which could well be useful in an emergency for those times when email just isn’t quick enough. Messages appear instantly on the recipients screen. Would be most beneficial as a way of providing status updates to a central coordinator, for example.

Organising Time

The Calendar is an extremely powerful one, again web based making it accessible to anyone with the required privileges. With this system, however, calendars can be shared, merged and certain appointments made publicly available to anyone, should you wish to. In the time following an emergency this could become especially powerful.

Bringing it All Together

iGoogle is the personalised portal, which allows you to display various types of information on one page. This includes summaries of your email, calendar, docs and spreadsheets and talk. You can also add ‘widgets’ which contain updates on RSS feeds and other tools like to do lists and sticky notes.

What’s Missing?

There are two glaring omissions from the Google Apps toolkit. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no wiki function available. The use that a wiki could be put to in an emergency situation is considerable. The collaborative word processing functionality of Docs could be used in this context, but it wouldn’t have the immediacy and ease of access of a wiki. This is hopefully going to be put right soon, as Google bought JotSpot, an enterprise level wiki solution, some time ago and this will hopefully make its way into Apps once it has been Googlified.

Secondly, there is no integrated blog. This would be a pretty easy one for Google to achieve, given that it already runs Blogger, probably the most popular blogging platform there is. I actually have quite a strong personal dislike of Blogger, finding it slow, lacking in features and somewhat unreliable. But at least it would provide a means of providing regular updates without having to edit web pages manually with Page Creator.

Conclusion

These downsides apart, Google Apps provides a pretty good coverage of the tools you might need to manage and communicate in a crisis. And given the miniscule costs – just the price of a domain per year – it might not be worth not doing.

Clouds and culture

CloudsLloyd Davis is a lovely man, and a very clever one at that. He founded the Tuttle Club, a weekly networkingy sort of meetup for people who like the internet and other people, which is at the same time very simple but also rather ingenious.

He also sports an even more ludicrous job title than mine, for at least a part of his time – he is Social Artist in Residence at the University of London’s Centre for Creative Collaboration. What does that mean? Mary has a go at explaining here. I’ve written a bit about social artists, as has David Wilcox.

Lloyd ran a couple of sessions at last week’s Likeminds conference – he facilitated a panel session; and hosted a lunchtime discussion, which I attended, on ‘cloud culture’. This is a topic he has written about on his blog, and which has been the focus of quite a bit of attention from such luminaries as Charles Leadbeater.

I found it a really interesting topic for discussion, and I’m grateful to Lloyd – and the organisers of the conference – for creating a space where I was made to think about it properly. There are, of course, many aspects of our culture that are affected by the internet, and use of the cloud in particular.

There is the issue of cultural ‘stuff’ or products, like stories, music, films, art etc. Traditionally hosted by museums or galleries, or publishers; what effect will be had by this hosting now being performed by Amazon, or Apple, or Google?

The case of the music industry is particularly interesting, of course. People have been making music for thousands of years. Record labels have existed for a handful of decades. You don’t need the latter to make the former possible. Artists don’t need bigorgs to distribute their work any more – get over it.

There are other types of culture too. What about national culture, in the age of the internet and globilisation? If all our culture is online, in the cloud, what effect does that have on who we think we are?

One of my main interests is organisational culture, classically defined as ‘the way we do things around here’. This is an area where the effect of the internet is probably most measurable. It’s also true of course that the internet itself has a culture. What lessons can organisations learn from this internet culture?

This goes back to my constantly repeated point that the interesting thing about the use of online technology is not the technology but the implications of using it. Internet culture is open, it’s cooperative, it’s funny, it’s transparent. These are the things we should be pushing our government to be.

What I like are examples of offline activity that wouldn’t be possible without the internet. Tuttle is one of those. On the face of it, it’s an old school networking meetup. The truth is, though, is that it’s an old school networking meetup that’s been filtered through the internet and its culture. Most of those who attend know each other virtually, introductions tend to go along the lines of “oh, so you’re [insert twitter username]”.

GovCamp is another example. So we met in real life, and the agenda was put together with post its on a big blank bit of paper. But how was it that so many people were convinced to give up their Saturday’s to come and talk about government? It’s because of the internet culture of openness, transparency, collaboration and the democratisation of publishing. Just as anyone can publish online, whether with a blog or whatever, anyone can speak at an unconference.

As I mentioned earlier today, I’m hoping to run a session at this week’s London LocalGovCamp about what lessons internet culture can teach local authorities, and other public sector organisations. Anyone who is coming to the event, please do come along and join in. Those that aren’t, I’d appreciate any comments.

Here’s a video where Lloyd talks about his stuff:

City of Angeles moves to Google Apps

Interesting!

Google Apps will also help conserve resources in the city’s Information & Technology Agency (ITA), which is responsible for researching, testing & implementing new technologies in ways that make Los Angeles a better place to live, work and play. Because the email and other applications are hosted and maintained by Google, ITA employees who previously were responsible for maintaining our email system can be freed up to work on projects that are central to making the city run.

By ITA estimates, Google Apps will save the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars by allowing us to shift resources currently dedicated to email to other purposes. For example, moving to Google will free up nearly 100 servers that were used for our existing email system, which will lower our electricity bills by almost $750,000 over five years. In short, this decision helps us to get the most out of the city’s IT budget.

The decision to move to Google Apps was not taken lightly. The city issued a request for proposals and received 15 proposals, which were evaluated by city officials. The top four proposals were invited to give oral presentations, with CSC’s proposal for Google Apps receiving the highest marks. This decision was reviewed and discussed by the Los Angeles City Council which, after a healthy debate, voted unanimously to move forward with Google Apps.

Here’s a video for more: