Bookmarks for April 11th through April 16th

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

  • A New Approach to Printing – “a service that enables any application (web, desktop, or mobile) on any device to print to any printer.”
  • Governments and Citizens: You Don’t Own Your Tweets – This is a really interesting piece on ownership of online content.
  • Beauty is the new must-have feature – “I’m predicting that we’ll start to have a non-functional requirement around making beautiful experiences when we build systems, and that we’ll be rubbish at it when it happens.”
  • Follow Finder by Google – “Follow Finder analyzes public social graph information (following and follower lists) on Twitter to find people you might want to follow.”
  • Enterprise 2.0 and improved business performance – “Despite growing evidence, which I’ve presented here and elsewhere, there still remains for many people a real question about the overall ability of social software to improve how organizations get things done.”
  • calibre – E-book management – Really handy (for a Kindle owner, anyway) open source, cross platform ebook conversion tool.
  • Why does government struggle with innovation? – “If innovation is becoming a core attribute required by government organisations, merely to keep up with the rate of change in society and the development of new ways to deliver services and fulfil public needs, perhaps we need to rewrite some of the rulebook, sacrificing part of our desire for stability in return for greater change.”
  • The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation – “There are many candidates for the biggest obstacle to innovation. You could try lack of management support, no employee initiative, not enough good ideas, too many good ideas but no follow-through just for starters. My nominee for The Biggest Obstacle to Innovation is: Inertia”
  • Lichfield District Council – Open Election Data Project Case Study – “An early adopter Lichfield District Council has been actively sharing a range of local data for some time. In March 2010 the Council was the first authority to make its local election results openly available as part of the Open Election Data Project.”
  • Google Docs Gets More Realtime; Adds Google Drawings To The Mix – Me likey!
  • YouTube – SearchStories’s Channel – Make your own Google search story video – like in the Superbowl ad. Cute.

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 iPad: computer or device?

There has been a flurry of reviews and opinions about Apple’s new gadget, the iPad, this weekend as the devices has been launched in the States. They should be in the UK by the end of April, and I still haven’t made up my mind about whether I’m going to get one or not.

ipad

A really interesting debate was kicked off by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing with a specific philosophical problem with the iPad, in that it is a computing device that is seemingly at odds with the prevailing culture of computing:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

In other words, where is the room for tinkering with a device like this? How can you get a piece of software onto your iPad, other than by having it accepted by Apple onto the AppStore?

Jeff Jarvis also has issues with the iPad:

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

There’s no denying it is a beautiful bit of kit, though, and a winning user experience. Take the review by Jason Snell:

One day, devices like the iPad may very well change the way we view computers and technology. But right now, I don’t believe the iPad is going to make anyone stop using their main Mac or PC. If you were in the market for an e-book reader or a supplemental laptop, though, I’d give those plans a serious re-think.

Because the iPad is such a new concept, Apple faces some serious challenges in making people understand how they might use it and why they should buy one. It’s not a product type people are familiar with, like a PC or a phone, or a TV or a lawnmower. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and consumers are pretty comfortable with their chicken and salmon, thank you very much.

Joe Clarke also has an interesting take:

This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

I think there is an important distinction to make between those who use computer purely to consume stuff – whether it’s web browsing, playing music and videos, doing a bit of online shopping, Facebooking and emailing, and those who create on a bigger scale using technology – those that produce a lot of content, whatever the medium, and those that want to program computers to do things.

The idea, frankly, that someone would buy an iPad so that they could learn PHP on it, or something, is a bit daft. Instead the iPad could be seen as the type of device people first use to get online, and if curiosity makes them want to find out how stuff is created, they graduate to more flexible machines, in other words a laptop or desktop computer.

I suspect then that iPads – and similar tablet devices – could begin to replace netbooks, which are often bought as cheaper alternatives to full laptops. As Tim Anderson’s recent piece shows, though, even an entry level netbook can be a pain to get working.

My main use for an iPad would be in using tools like my email, Twitter, and especially Google Reader, in a comfy way when I am away from my desk. Whether that’s worth £500 I’m not sure.

The interesting thing is to watch emergent technology to see where it will go. The great example is SMS and mobile phones – it was never thought likely that people would use text messaging, and yet it is a phenomenally popular tool.

Here’s another example, from my own technology use. I bought a Kindle a few months ago, mainly to have a play and without any serious idea that I might stop reading paper books. However, I’ve found myself using it more and more – but not to read books.

Kindle

It’s really easy to get PDFs on the Kindle, either by emailing them into a dedicated address for my device (which costs a few pence) or just transferring by USB when the Kindle is connected to my computer, like any other external storage. The Kindle has now become the thing I use to read documents published electronically, whether white papers, instruction manuals, policy documents, whatever. Rather than staring at my laptop screen, or printing them out, I now just download them onto the Kindle and read them on there.

So it’s possible that the game changing use of devices like the iPad hasn’t even been identified yet. But I think it is important to recognise that these things are devices and not computers, at least not in the sense that a lot of us are used to.

iPhones

I’ve had an iPhone for about 18 months now. In the summer, I upgraded from my 8gb first generation model to a 32gb 3GS. It’s awesome, and with the 3G, extra processor speed and storage, plus improvements to the camera and the phone experience, I’d say it is the first true experience of what the iPhone was always meant to do, if that makes sense.

Here are a few recent examples of how the iPhone doesn’t change your life, but does subtly make it so much easier, and sometimes stranger:

  1. Before having an iPhone, when I went on trips to London for meetings and things, I’d take a laptop, mp3 player, and my phone. Go back a couple of years and I’d have a PDA as well (a Palm Tungsten T5, if you’re interested). I might have had a separate camera, and possibly something like a Flip, just in case. Now, unless I have a bit of work to do when I am traveling that involves a lot of typing, I just take the iPhone.
  2. I got a phone call the other day, when I happened to be in London, from someone asking to meet up. They told me where they were, and as soon as I hung up, I looked up where it was on the map on the iPhone, and where the nearest tube station was from it, and where the nearest one from me was. Then I went straight to the Tube iPhone app to get the best route from where I was to where I needed to be. This is great for me, as I don’t really know London that well, and means I don’t have to faff around with loads of maps, looking like a tit. Instead I get to stare into my phone, looking like a tit.
  3. Today I was in Halfords, looking for a bike rack. I found the one I wanted, but it wasn’t priced up! A normal person would find a Halford’s staff member to ask. I just went to the Halford’s website on my iPhone and searched for the product’s reference number. I got the price in a couple of seconds.
  4. On the train home, before Christmas, I was having several conversations, all through my phone. One was using SMS, one on Yammer, another on Twitter, another through email and another on IM. I skipped around them, keeping up and responding to each without any real thought. When I got home, I really couldn’t think why I was using each medium to talk to those people – I had the mobile number of the person I was emailing, so I could have sent them a text, for example.

The interesting thing about 2,3 and 4 is that I didn’t have to think about what I was doing, it just happened. The iPhone’s interface isn’t perfect – for instance, why are the compose buttons for SMS messages and emails at different ends of the screen? – but it’s still fairly intuitive and keeps out of the way. Having all these different streams coming into one device just makes everything so fluid.

The one issue is that typing a lot just isn’t feasible. This seems to be a great way of sorting that out, though:

I’m not willing to jailbreak my phone though. Let’s hope something similar that’s authorised will appear soon.

Social media and local government culture

I had an enjoyable time on Thursday of this week, with the rest of the Learning Pool crew, customers and friends, at the Learning Pool networking event / third birthday party. Some good pals were there, and I got to meet plenty of new people too. Some photos are here.

I did my usual turn, with one or two additions. Here are the slides:

One of the new slides in this deck asks the question “Should local gov be like Apple or Google?”.

When I road tested this question on Twitter, I got a range of responses, some being quite clear cut, others wondering what the hell I was on about. One was particularly clever.

Here’s what I meant.

Apple are closed, switched off from the conversations about them. They keep their customers at a distance and go to remarkable lengths to prevent users from giving them ideas. As far as Apple are concerned, they know all the answers.

Apple’s products are also damn expensive. They charge as much as the market can bear – and sometimes more. So how come they are so popular?

It comes down to the user experience. It’s so awesome, that people like me will put up with all sorted of crap to be able to keep using it. So, an organisation can still succeed, even if it is closed in its culture, if the product is good enough. I think it would be difficult to argue that any level of government’s user experience is up to the same level as Apple’s right now…

Google, on the other hand, take a far more open culture. They have loads of blogs, just about one for every service they operate. They have forums for users to help one another, and to get help from support. An awful lot of Google’s technology is open source, and they run platforms for others to host and share their code, as well.

Google’s pricing model is different to Apples’s, too. Instead of charging as much as the market can bear, Google charges as little as it can bear, as Jeff Jarvis explains in What Would Google Do? Google wants as many people to use its products as possible, because that makes them work better, so they make them free, or as close to free as they can. Google is more a platform, or a network, than just a company that sells stuff.

Local Government needs to be more like Google, than Apple. It needs to listen to its users, and to develop and design services around their needs rather than deciding itself what is best for them. It needs to take the time to explain itself to its users, and set up feedback channels that feed directly into service design. In fact, communications, customer service and service delivery should all be part of one single process, each element constantly updating the others.

So this is all, really, less about technology, and more about organisational culture. What a surprise. I do fear that some local authorities, having set up a Twitter account, or started a blog, will think they have this thing licked. They haven’t – it’s bigger than that, and it goes back to Steph‘s point, that interactive websites need interactive organisations. Sticking some of these web tools on an organisation that doesn’t want to listen or engage will result in car crash.

People have been talking about changing culture in government for a very long time, and not a lot has changed – I’m reminded of Will Perrin’s point, which I often repeat, that government in the UK is trying to solve 21st century problems with 21st century technology through 19th century governance. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth giving a go. I think there is a lot that government at all levels can learn from the culture of organisations like Google, and other tech firms. Take Netflix, for example, a US based DVD rental company. Their culture, as described in this public presentation, is remarkable and one that probably any organisation could learn from:

I’ll be covering some more issues around culture, and leadership, in future posts, as it’s a fascinating (to me!) topic.

What I use

Sometimes it’s nice to hear what tech people use on a day to day basis. It’s useful to pick up hints and tips, and to pick up on cool tools you might not have heard of before.

Here’s my day-to-day kit:

1. Hardware

I have a 15 inch MacBookPro for travelling with, a 24 inch iMac for when I am in the office, and a Samsung NC10 for when I need two machines at the same time (for instance when I am out social reporting).

The iMac has a second screen, the main use of which I will come onto later.

I have a Kodak all in one printer, a Nikon D40 DSLR, a couple of Flip Ultras, a couple of GorillaPods, a MicroTrack II which I never use and an iPhone.

2. Software

In terms of desktop software, those that I use the most are:

  • Firefox – with all the plugins available for it, still the best browser by miles. Maybe when Chrome is out on the Mac I might reconsider, but until then…
  • Tweetdeck – I used to be a Twhirl man, but Tweetdeck has won me over recently, despite the large amount of screen real estate it takes up.
  • Yammer – Yammer is Twitter within an organisation – it’s limited to people on the same email domain. The Learning Pool team use it to keep one another up to date and as the official banter and abuse channel. The desktop app makes it easy to keep on top of it all.
  • Parallels – this makes running virtual machines on the Mac a doddle. Means I can run Windows XP virtually, which is handy for testing in Internet Explorer and other things which have to be done in Windows. On my iMac, it’s Windows that runs in full screen on my second monitor. Sweet.
  • Transmit – an FTP client that rocks.
  • Coda – a great code editor with built in FTP goodness.
  • MarsEdit – a blog post editor. For some reason it just makes writing posts quicker.
  • Photoshop Elements – for image and photo editing. This cut down version seems to do everything I need. Still not cheap, so I only have this on the iMac.
  • Pixelmator – a cheaper image editor than Photoshop, which I have on the MBP.
  • iCal – default Mac calendar app. Does the job for me.
  • Skitch – A simply awesome screenshot programme. So simple and a joy to use.
  • Skype – keeps the telephone costs down. There are more open VOIP systems out there, but the people I need to talk to are all on Skype, so…
  • Microsoft Office – sadly it’s still a must have.
  • MAMP – turns a mac into a web server with a couple of mouse clicks. Great for developing sites locally.
  • Omnigraffle – brilliant diagramming application. Like Visio, but good.
  • iTunes – manages all my music and backs up my iPhone. I use it because I have to, but it’s ok.
  • Internet Explorer versions 6-8 – under Parallels in XP, I use this application to run multiple versions of IE for website testing.

3. Sites and Services

My web based activity is mainly spent using:

  • Gmail – the best email interface, like, ever. I have loads of different email addresses feeding into the one account and managing them all is a dream. I use the Apps version, tethered to my domain.
  • Google Docs – great for quickly typing up ideas and sharing them with people – though I still prefer a desktop word processor for big documents.
  • Twitter – still visit the website now and again, mainly to find and follow new people.
  • Google Reader – at the last count, I follow about 700 feeds. Reader makes it possible, without going mad.
  • WordPress – the online publishing platform of the gods.
  • Ning – even with some of the accessibility issues, it’s still the easiest way to build a community online.
  • Delicious – the biggest social bookmarking community and that makes it the best, in my view.
  • MobileMe – an Apple service that keeps my calendar and contacts synched across all my computers, the web, and my iphone, without me having to do anything. Nice one!
  • Flickr – the only photo sharing site worth using? Possibly. It;s the one I have been using for 4 years or so now, so I am not going to change any time soon!
  • YouTube, Blip.tv and Vimeo – unlike with photos or bookmarks, choosing a video host isn’t quite a no brainer, depending on the length of your clips, the levels of privacy you need or the quality you require.
  • Facebook – despite Twitter’s ascendancy, I still use Facebook most days. It’s mainly my non-geek friends that are there, and it’s important to remember that not everyone is on the bleeding edge…
  • LinkedIn – my network here is growing day by day – but I’m still not sure what value I get out of it. Worth keeping up with though, just in case.
  • Google Groups – a dead simple way of getting an email list together. It isn’t hip, but it does work.
  • Huddle – online project management. Great for keeping groups of people up to date with activity.
  • Basecamp – sometimes Huddle is just too good, and a less feature rich service is needed. Hence Basecamp, which can annoy as much as it delights, but it’s email integration is excellent.

So that’s what I use on regular basis. It would be good to know what other people are up to, to see if I can steal some ideas!

Pukka: an answer to my prayers

I’m making quite a lot of use of the social bookmarking service Delicious at the moment. Luckily, it is mostly using my own account, but on one or two projects I am using specific accounts.

This can be a pain in the neck. I’ve installed the Delicious extension for Firefox which makes bookmarking a dream – but that only works with my usual account. Logging in and out all the time is a faff and not really an option.

What I have been doing recently is using different browsers for different accounts. It’s cumbersome and sometimes tricky to remember which browser works with which account!

However, I’ve now found the answer to my multiple delicious account problem prayers. It’s called Pukka.

pukkaPukka is a piece of software from some guys called Code Sorcery which makes it a breeze to manage all your accounts in one go.

Effectively, it is a client for Delicious. You load it up with the credentials for all your accounts, which you can then choose from a drop down menu when creating a bookmark.

There is also a bookmarklet which lets you call up the application straight from the browser and which fills in quite a few of the details of the page you are viewing for you.

It isn’t perfect – I can’t find an option to be able to post a bookmark to multiple accounts, for instance – but for roughly a tenner you can’t really go wrong.

Sadly for Windows and Linux users, it is Mac only.

Mini

I treated myself to a new toy today, a Mac Mini. Here it is, next to the rather splendid curtains in our spare room:

Mac mini

To be honest, I really want a nice big iMac but can’t afford it. The Mini is a nice, relatively cheap alternative. Working on a MacBook all the time really isn’t good for the eyes – and with the Mini plugged into a 20″ monitor, that’s no longer a problem.

Mini and monitor

In terms of grunt, the Mini is slightly less powerful than your average MacBook, but seems to be fine with what I need it for. Editing video might be a struggle, though.

Is your organisation an Apple or a Google?

Nice post from Steve Rubel, comparing the approach taken by two hugely innovative companies to engaging with their customers:

Google isn’t exactly known as the most transparent company in the world, but they’re light years ahead of Apple – a company that in some ways they share a kinship with when it comes to their reputation for innovation. Apple (or for that matter any big company) can learn a lot about radical transparency, customer service and PR from Google, even though they’re hardly perfect here.

The post is worth reading in full as Rubel analyses some of the good stuff that Google does (open about improvements to their products and lots of blogs) – and compares it to the lack of such activity by Apple.

I dare say that many public sector organisations are behind even Apple in this regard. Would you even want to be as open as Google about this sort of stuff? My view would be yes, but I would imagine that the idea would scare a lot of folk to death!

My iPhone Apps

Since the iPhone has allowed the installation of third party apps, the utility of the device has increased massively. It just does so much! Here are the ones I find myself using most often:

  • Twitterific – The best twitter client I have used on the iPhone so far. I am still a Twhirl fan on the mac itself, but that isn’t mobile just yet. Still using the ad-supported one, think they made a mistake when they designed the ads to be so easy to ignore!
  • Facebook – the only way I really use Facebook these days. Speeds things up a treat compared to the web version, and the inbuilt messaging service works really well
  • WordPress – only posted once (last night’s test message) using this so far, but it’s great for writing little drafts or notes for potential posts and getting them started
  • EndEvernote – the iPhone app helped me ‘get’ what Evernote could be used for. It allows me to take photos, record snatches of audio or type notes all of which get synced to the EndEvernote desktop app where they can then be exported and used for stuff. I can see myself ditching my Moleskeine for this soon.
  • Google – makes search quicker and easier, and also allows access to other apps, even allowing me to use my Google Apps stuff.
  • Super Monkey Ball – brilliant for quick games here and there, even though I am HOPELESS at it

What other great apps are there I should be using?

MobileMe

MobileMe is a new version of pretty established service from Apple, called .Mac. Essentially, it puts bits of information that are stored on your computer or iPhone, and stores them online for you. This works, because it means that both your computer and iPhone can sync themselves using the online version, meaning they are both up to date pretty much all the time.

At the moment I am doing this just with my calendar and contacts, and just with these services, it’s really useful. Say I put a new entry in my calendar on my MacBook: within 15 minutes it will be on my iPhone too, without having to plug the two together, or having to press any buttons. Excellent!

There’s more, though, which I am going to explore – including hosting files online, thus making them accessible from anywhere. This is through the web interface, which allows you to see your files, calendar, contacts and email (if you use the email address supplied with MobileMe – I don’t bother, personally). I am having a few problems with the website at the moment – it isn’t letting me log in, which is a shame. But the fact that the syncing works is great for me.

MobileMe isn’t free, and if I can’t log into the website soon, I am going to be pretty annoyed. The cost is about £60 a year, which I think is worth it just for the syncing alone.