Bookmarks for April 6th through April 27th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

The victory of the app store?

I just downloaded the latest update to Apple’s computer operating system, Mac OSX, which brings with it an app store, like the sort on your mobile phone, or iPad.

It means that I can browse for, pay for (if necessary) and download software for my computer without having to search the web for it, then do another search for reviews to make sure it’s any good, etc.

There are clear advantages for the consumer – but also for the smaller developers of apps who can now get a shop window on people’s desktops.

As Adrian Short noted on Twitter, there are cost savings to using the app store as compared to, say, buying software on Amazon:

I note that the next version of Windows, 8, will also feature an app store.

This is addition to the web browser based app store that Google have released for Chrome, which I blogged about last year.

App stores aren’t new, and originated on the desktop with the software repositories on Linux systems. But it certainly seems to be a concept that is now reaching the mainstream.

There are different models for app stores, with a principle difference being how open they are. Apple, for example, curate theirs with a iron fist, only allowing apps through which meet their stringent criteria for quality and usability.

The Android store, on the other hand, is an apparently lawless place, with many apps of dubious provenance and quality.

A further interesting development is the Amazon app store for Android – a third party creating its own app store for someone else’s platform!

It will be interesting to see what wins – sheer number of available apps, or better curation through central control? I suspect the latter as user experience ought to be key.

What about public services?

Should there be an app store for government? There are two potential scenarios here.

Firstly an app store for public sector workers to use to get applications onto their work computers (or perhaps just their web browsers in the Chrome model). A trusted source of apps to give people greater flexibility in terms of what they can use on their computers.

The advantages of this are considerable. No more pleading of the IT department to let you install Tweetdeck. No more finding that Evernote is blocked. Not sure how likely it is, though.

The second model would be to provide a store for apps for non government people to use to interact with public services.

There would be a number of things that needed to be worked out here, including ensuring apps were available on a range of platforms and devices.

Also, who would run it? I recall David Wilcox’s ideas for a social app store as being a centrally-located but not controlled place where civically minded digital bits and bobs could be used by others to make their place a bit better.

I still like this idea a lot – decentralised, government able to take part and contribute but not own, useful and hopefully not requiring vast amounts of money to build and run.

I’d certainly be interested in others’ views on where an app store might fit into public services, what it would look like and how it could work.

Update: Just come across this interesting post from Stephen O’Grady which is well worth a read: Who’s Going to Build the App Store for the Enterprise?

Update 2: How could I forget? The Knowledge Hub will have an app store in it.

My setup

One of my favourite bits of technology porn is Shawn Blanc’s series on sweet Mac setups. It basically just gives dorks like me an opportunity to drool over other people’s kit.

But there’s another purpose to this, which is that it makes you think about the technology you use, and how it might be improved, in terms of fitting it in around the way you work.

Here’s my setup.

At home:

24″ iMac with another 24″ monitor (a Samsung SyncMaster P2450) on dual screen. Wired Apple keyboard and a Magic Mouse.

This is the beast which sits on my desk in my office at home and is where I spend most of the working day, when I am not on the road. It’s super fast and has plenty of storage (1TB hard drive) so it’s where all the electronic media the family owns lies – ie music, photos, video etc.

Having two screens is great productivity wise, though I do find myself wasting it at times, by having just Twitter on the second screen, for example. I often find myself wishing I had three screens, which is absurd.

Even just having the one big screen is a massive bonus though, just being able to easily have two documents open next to each other to work from is a revelation – especially compared to what I had to work with when I worked in government.

I also have a Kodak ESP 9 all-in-one printer and scanner thing, but I hate it like I do all printers. Frankly it only really gets used for printing boarding passes these days.

On the move:

My portable machine is a MacBook Air, with 2gb RAM and 120gb solid state storage. It’s isn’t particularly quick or grunty but is spectacularly light and small. I try to keep the number of applications and files stored on it to a minimum, and the Air does tend to slow down quite badly at times – especially when playing video for example.

As a travelling machine, though, it’s fabulous. Previously I had a 15″ MacBook Pro which could handle pretty much anything thrown at it, but was just too big and heavy to lug around all the time (maybe I’m just lazy).

The solid state drive is awesome too. No moving parts like a traditional hard drive, it’s quick and silent – and robust too. I should think every laptop I buy from now on will have this.

Other stuff:

Phone is currently a Nexus One, as described here. I also have a Dell laptop running Windows 7 and a desktop PC which dual-boots into either Windows 7 or whatever the latest version of Ubuntu is – this machine rarely gets turned on though.

Backup:

I backup both the iMac and Air using Time Machine on a 1TB Apple Time Capsule, which also acts as a wireless router at home. I’m not actually convinced this is working terribly well, however, but am too scared to fiddle with it in case it breaks completely.

I also backup the iMac to the cloud, using Carbonite, and of course important stuff sits on Dropbox too.

Software:

Here’s a list of the bits I am using most often at the moment.

  • iWork – Pages is a lovely word processor and Keynote a delightful way of throwing presentations together. I don’t do spreadsheets.
  • Chrome – My browser of choice since it became stable on the Mac – so much quicker than Firefox.
  • Evernote – I’ve written about this enough, I think.
  • Dropbox – a vital tool for anyone who regularly uses more than one machine, it’s also an awesome tool for sharing large files with anyone
  • Parallels – great bit of software for running virtual machines on a Mac. I use it rarely, mostly for running Windows XP for testing stuff in IE6
  • MarsEdit – A blog post editor that lets you compose posts offline before publishing them online. Nice keyboard shortcuts makes editing in source code view quick and easy.
  • NetNewsWire – I flip flop between this and Google Reader all the time. NNW is currently winning because of the lovely user interface.
  • iTunes – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my music and podcasts sit
  • iPhoto – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my photos sit
  • Transmit – an FTP client that works just fine
  • Pixelmator – I have Photoshop (Express) but find this cheaper alternative does what I want it to and quicker, too
  • TextWrangler – serves all my text editing needs. Would love to have an excuse to buy TextMate, but haven’t found it yet
  • Skype – invaluable for keeping in touch with colleagues, and I use it for most of my landline calling too, nowadays.
  • Skitch – screengrabs made easy
  • Screenflow – screencasting tool. Need to use this more often.
  • MindNodePro – mindmapping, simple and easy.
  • Tweetie – prefer this to the Adobe Air based apps.
  • Safari – find myself needing another browser open a fair bit, usually just to be able to use two Google accounts at once
  • MS Office – I do my best not to. But sadly, so many other people do that it’s almost imposible to avoid it entirely. Word in particular on a Mac is a total dog.

If I could have my time again…

Whilst this setup works pretty well, in terms of having processing grunt on the desktop and lightness on the move, it isn’t perfect.

The main problem is keeping software and files up to date across the two machines. Tools like Evernote and Dropbox help massively with this – in fact I think I probably would have gone mad by now if I didn’t have them.

For instance, having to buy two copies of every bit of software I use is a pain and an expense I could do without. Likewise, knowing there are some files on another machine – and not saved to Dropbox – that I need can be a real pain if I can’t access them.

So what would I do if I had some money to recreate my office IT? I think I would go for a one machine solution. Probably a high spec 13″ MacBook Pro which is still fairly small and relatively light, but which packs a bigger punch than the Air.

When at home, I would plug it into my Samsung screen and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse thus giving me the solidity of a desktop type experience. I’d probably get some sort of stand or riser for the MacBook so I could use it as a secondary screen without breaking my neck.

What’s your setup (Mac or otherwise!)? How would you improve it?

Bookmarks for July 11th through July 16th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • How to work with online communities at Helpful Technology – "But there are many other ways to build relationships, and lots more experience to share. To help explore this further, I’m helping to convene Meet The Communities, a free, one-off event probably in Central London during September, bringing together some of the leading online communities with the government clients, PR & digital agencies for an afternoon of storytelling and speednetworking."
  • App Inventor and the culture wars – O’Reilly Radar – "Creativity–whether the creativity of others or your own–is what makes life worthwhile, and enabling creativity is a heroic act. Google has built a culture around enabling others' creativity, and that's worth celebrating. "
  • The Big Society – the evidence base – "Building on David Kane’s blog-post on the numbers behind the Big Society, the NCVO research team is keen to explore in greater depth the evidence behind this important policy agenda which emphasises the need to transform the relationship between citizens and the state."
  • Should Governments Develop iPhone Apps? – "No, governments should not develop iPhone apps, the community should."
  • Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications – "With Google applications we return to the app to do something specific and then go on to something else, whereas great social applications are designed to lure us back and make us never want to leave."
  • WordPress Plugins to Reduce Load-time : Performancing – Doubt my blog will ever run into performance problems due to traffic, but some interesting stuff here nonetheless.
  • BBC – dot.Rory: Martha’s manifesto – "But it's hard to see how the pledge of universal web access for the UK workforce – which may well be backed by the prime minister later today – can be fulfilled without some government money."
  • UK Government Goes Social for Budget Cuts: Do Not Hold Your Breath – "Once again, this is the unavoidable asymmetry of government 2.0 in action: it is easier (and certainly more pressworthy) to call for ideas on channels that government controls, rather than to gather them where they already are."
  • How Local Government can do Facebook « The Dan Slee Blog – Great roundup and hints and tips from Dan.
  • CycleStreets: UK-wide Cycle Journey Planner and Photomap – "CycleStreets is a UK-wide cycle journey planner system, which lets you plan routes from A to B by bike. It is designed by cyclists, for cyclists, and caters for the needs of both confident and less confident cyclists."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for July 3rd through July 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

John Naughton on the iPad

John Naughton‘s Observer piece on the iPad is well worth reading in full:

It’s when one tries to use the iPad for generating content that its deficiencies become obvious. The biggest flaw is the absence of multitasking, so you have to close one app to open another, which is a bit like going back to the world of MS-DOS. Email, using the on-screen virtual keyboard, works fine, and if you buy Apple’s text-processing app, Pages, then you can create documents. But the hoops one has to go through to pull existing documents in for editing are ludicrously convoluted and there’s no way one can easily print from the device.

Further, his week long diary is also a great bit of writing about what this device is actually for:

  • The week has reminded me of how much I value my laptops (MacBook Air and Hackintosh netbook)
  • The iPad is primarily a consumption device — and is very good for that. But it’s hopeless for originating or editing existing stuff. It doesn’t fit into my personal workflow. At the moment, it can’t handle digital cameras (though Quentin tells me there’s an optional USB-type connector available) and doesn’t have an onboard camera, so much inferior to iPhone in that respect.
  • The huge sales of the iPad suggest that Apple has discovered another profitable market niche — between laptop and smartphone. If so, then it isn’t the elderly, PC-less folks of this world. To make use of the iPad you need (a) access to a machine running iTunes; and (b) access to a wi-fi network.
  • For me, the iPad turns out to belong to the category “nice to have but not essential”. It’s beautifully made, but overpriced (esp in UK) and heavy.
  • I can see that I might find it useful in some circcumstances — e.g. a day spent travelling away from base when all I need is email, web browsing and small amounts of writing. For some people, that may be all they need.
  • Finally, I can’t see it making big inroads as an eBook reader, somehow. Of course the big screen is an advantage. But it’s offset by the increased weight, and the poor performance in bright sunlight. And it’s too bulky to carry around. When I compare it with the Eucalyptus App on my iPod Touch — which enables me to carry, for example, the entire text of Ulysses in my pocket. Given that the iPad is only marginally heavier than my hardback Everyman edition of Joyce’s novel — and I don’t carry that around — well, you can see that the Pad is no competition for the Touch.

This pretty much matches my experience. The iPad is wonderful for informal consumption of content quick browsing whilst sat on the sofa, scanning through PDFs and other documents, chatting on Twitter etc. But trying to create anything significant on it is presently a nightmare, and it’s not a Kindle-killer for me.

Update: Andrea Di Maio has posted his thoughts too:

What the iPad has turned into is a compelling professional device. I use it to take notes during meetings, to show slides to small groups around the table, as well as to do formal presentations (I bought the dongle to connect to VGA projectors). Most of my blog posts are now drafted on the iPad, an so are my research notes. When I find a wifi hotspot I just send those as attachments to my Gartner email, where I import into the relevant tool.

iPad therefore I am

OK, so I said I probably wasn’t going to get an iPad. On Friday I bought one. I admit it: I’m pathetic.

Dave and his iPad box

My thing with the iPad before I got it was that I wasn’t sure where it really fitted in my life – what would I use it for?

A lot, it turns out.

I went for the cheapest option: a 16gb model without 3g mobile internet access – I have to rely on getting a wifi connection. That’s ok though, because I’m not planning on taking the iPad out of the house much.

The iPad is a simply wonderful device for consuming content. The web browsing experience is superb – quick, beautiful to look at, and the screen size makes it easy and comfortable to browse. It’s also great for watching video content, whether purchased and downloaded through iTunes or watched on YouTube through the dedicated app.

It’s also great for reading other stuff, like PDFs and other documents. They’re presented really nicely and it’s much better to flick through on the iPad rather than either stare at a bigger screen or print stuff out.

The form factor is excellent, pretty light and comfy to hold. I tend to keep mine in landscape mode and find myself sat on the couch with my legs crossed and with the iPad wedged into my knee-pit. This is where I see it fitting in – not replacing my laptop or desktop, but being a comfy thing for checking email and reading stuff when I’m not at my desk. Whenever I’m watching TV these days I’ve invariably got a laptop balanced on the arm of the chair and the iPad will suit this casual use really well.

One thing that is missing is a decent RSS reader. There are problems with all the ones I have tried so far (see below). What I really want is a decent iPad interface to Google Reader – in other words, not an app but a website that renders nicely. For example, Google have created a wonderful interface for Gmail on the iPad, but Reader is stuck with the one that regular mobile devices use – which doesn’t transfer well to the larger screen.

I’ve installed a few apps so far. Here’s what I think of them:

  • Pages – Apple’s Mac word processor redesigned for the iPad. Lovely to look at, and ok to use, though I can’t see myself typing for long periods on the on-screen keyboard
  • MindNode – a great mind mapping app which I have on iPhone and my desktop and laptop Macs. You can share mindmaps across devices if they are connected to the same wireless network, which is neat
  • Kindle – despite having iBooks, the iPad will not replace my Kindle as my e-reader – the screen is just too bright, and it’s the wrong size. But for quickly accessing books for a quote or a reference, having access to my Kindle e-books on the iPad is great
  • Huddle – a really nicely done version of the Huddle iPhone app on the bigger screen. Sweeping and swooshing round projects is good fun
  • Bulletin – an RSS reader. Syncs with Google Reader and allows for sharing of items on Reader, as well as via Delicious etc. It’s ok but not the best looking or the most user friendly
  • Articles – a Wikipedia client. Looks lovely and is quick and easy to use
  • iBooks – Apple’s free app for e-books. Comes with Winne the Pooh for free, and is beautiful. See Kindle above for why I won’t use it much though
  • Dropbox – brilliantly done – excellent for accessing and reading documents. Only downside is getting stuff onto Dropbox from the iPad – easy enough with photos, but what about documents created in Pages? Haven’t figured this out yet
  • Twitterific – the best Twitter client I have found so far
  • GoToMeeting – not used this yet, but Learning Pool have recently switched to GoToMeeting for their webinars and online meetings – apparently the iPad experience is really good
  • WordPress – quick access to editing content on a WordPress site, does the job adequately
  • Evernote – enables me to access my Evernote notebooks and add new notes. Read about what Evernote does here
  • NetNewsWire – another RSS reader. Had high hopes for this, but the sharing options just aren’t nearly comprehensive enough
  • TweetDeck – the columns view is very nice, but I couldn’t access individuals’ profiles or Twitter streams. Very weird.
  • Instapaper – a site for saving items to read later. Never really used it a great deal, but the option’s there if I need it!

I think overall, it’s just a different way of looking at an internet-enabled device. It isn’t a computer, and a lot of the criticisms of it – around the control of the app store and a certain lack of openness around the iPad – is missing the point. Your average person can’t programme it, but so what? If you want to programme your device, get a laptop or netbook.

The iPad is a great living room device. It’s not a piece of office equipment.

Using a PC

I’ve had a pretty settled tech line-up for a while, which works really well for me. Essentially – 24” iMac on the desktop, MacBook Air for the portable and an iPhone for the really portable.

The iMac is fine for the grunt work, sitting at the desk ploughing through pretty much anything – with 4gb RAM and a 3.06ghz Core 2 Duo crunching through video doesn’t present too many problems (though I am at times tempted to up the RAM to the full 8gb).

The Air is not a performance machine, but it handles the web ok as well as basic stuff like Word, and is light enough to lug about and use on trains etc without too much bother. The battery life on it is disappointing, I only get between 2.5 and 3 hours out of a full charge. It’s limited to 2gb RAM, which isn’t that much these days, and things can slow down when you have a lot going on – Flash content can be a problem.

Some stuff you need Windows for, so on the iMac I have a virtual Windows XP machine, which I tend to use for testing stuff in Internet Explorer 6 and the odd bit of Office work which, for whatever reason, Office on the Mac can’t handle (sometimes it does very odd things with formatting).

This setup has done me proud, and with the brilliant Dropbox providing the glue that keeps all these machines stuck together, it’s been easy to work on stuff whichever device I’m using.

Sadly though, my Air has had to go into the Apple shop for repairs – the iSight webcam stopped working, and that means the whole screen-half of the machine needs replacing, and it will be gone for a week at least.

This left me laptopless, which given that I am out of my office a few days a week, would cause some major productivity problems. Luckily team Learning Pool came to the rescue and kitted me out with a new laptop.

It has Windows on it.

To be precise, Windows 7 running on a Dell Vostro v13. It’s a lightweight portable laptop, a step above a netbook, but no workhorse machine. My model has 2gb RAM and a 1.3ghz Celeron processor – plenty for web browsing, emailing and Office stuff, but not a machine you’d want to do any video editing on, for example. Also, if you have too many apps open at once things do slow down quite  bit. In other words, it’s a bit like the Air.

Like the Air, it’s also a lovely looking thing, thin and light and perfect to carry around a lot. I’m finding Windows 7 a real improvement on Vista, but it still takes too long to boot up, shut down and wake up after going to sleep.

The battery life on the Vostro is as awful as it is on the Air, if perhaps a little worse. 2.5 hours seems to be the best it can do. Carrying a power lead will be necessary.

Most of what this review on Engadget says is about right, I think. What I have found I miss most from the Air – apart from all my favourite apps (see below) – is the trackpad. Using multitouch has just become second nature to me, and as I tend to do a lot of scrolling – in Google Reader, for example, or on general web browsing – having to constantly switch between trackpad and cursor keys is incredibly annoying and counter-intuitive.

In terms of software, the Learning Pool guys installed Office for me, and Skype, which is handy to have. Of course, with the Windows version of Office I get Outlook and I’m giving it a go (we use Google to handle our email and calendar at Learning Pool, and it seems to play pretty nicely with Outlook. On the Mac, I stick to the web interfaces). It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

Bits of software I have added include my favourite RSS aggregator, FeedDemon which is superb, especially with the Google Reader synchronisation. NetNewsWire, the Mac equivalent, has nowhere near the richness of features sported by FeedDemon.

I installed Dropbox, so all the files I have shared using my other machines are now available on this one too.

I found that Live Writer was preinstalled, which is cool as it is a neat offline blog editor (I’m using it to write this post) and probably better than any of the Mac options.

I need an FTP client, and for that I downloaded FileZilla, a free open source cross-platform application that seems to work nicely enough, but doesn’t have the great usability of Transmit, which I use on the Mac. Any suggestions for a better app are welcome.

I’m using Notepad++ at the moment as a text editor, which is useful enough but I am yet to find a genuine equivalent to the likes of TextMate or BBedit on the Mac. If anyone has a recommendation, do let me know.

For Twitter, I installed the native Windows app by Seesmic, so as to avoid having to install Adobe Air, which can be a bit resource intensive on these less well-powered machines. I didn’t like it though, so also installed Air and Tweetdeck. Paint.net is a good little free image editor, and I downloaded Chrome for a browser – I couldn’t contemplate using IE, and I find Firefox is a bit slow and bloated these days.

Windows 7 comes with something called the ‘Snipping Tool’ which may replace Skitch on the Mac – if not then there is always the likes of SnagIt. The way Windows handles archive files like .zip seems really slow, and doesn’t match the speed that OSX seems to handle these things. I suppose something like WinZip would solve this.

Generally I would say Windows 7 is pretty good, probably the best version I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t come close to the ease of use of OSX. The system is often a bit sluggish to react and sometimes it isn’t terribly obvious to know what to do to accomplish certain tasks.

Bookmarks for April 19th through April 23rd

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • Open innovation, why bother? – 100% Open – "…if open innovation is to deliver sustainable business advantage then we need a better understanding of what motivates contributors to these initiatives, else there is a risk of a backlash against them…"
  • Docs.com – MS Office + Facebook beats Google Docs? Am not convinced!
  • TALKI – The easiest way to embed a forum – Embed a forum on your website – just like that! Users can sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts.
  • Government 2.0 Can and Must Save Money – "I think that the current shortage of resources and a sometimes dramatic budgetary situation can be a powerful incentive to make this change happen, to tap into the creativity of employees as well as external resources." YES!!!
  • Red Sweater Blog – Apple Downloads – VERY interesting – is Apple going to go down the App Store route for vetting Mac software now, too?
  • HTML5 presentation – "Slideshow-style presentation on HTML5 made using HTML5."
  • CDC Provides a Great Example of What Social Media Is About – "CDC’s strategy puts them in a better position to identify patterns where trust may be shifting elsewhere early enough to take action: many other agencies worldwide, which just care about publishing data and creating their Facebook pages, will be taken by surprise."
  • data.lincoln.gov.uk (beta) – Lincoln City Council start publishing data publicly – great work, and props to Andrew Beeken who must have driven this through.
  • Simplifying the social web with XAuth – "We think that XAuth can simplify and improve the social web, while keeping your private information safe. This is just one of many steps that Google is taking, along with others in the industry, to make the social web easier and more personalized."
  • Open Government and the Future of Public Sector IT – Great talk from Microsoft's Dave Coplin.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.