Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Recent writing elsewhere

I’ve been publishing a few bits of writing in places other than this blog lately.

Here’s an article I wrote for our local newspaper – the first of what will hopefully be a regular series:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

I’ve also written a couple of articles for the Business Lincolnshire website, which is run by the County Council. One is on avoiding social media pratfalls and the other is on some of the benefits of software as a service. You can read them both via this link.

The cloud article is one of a series I’m writing to promote the conference we are running in Boston on 12 July – more details here.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

(Am starting to post interesting links to the blog again, via Google Reader. Presentation leaves a little to be desired, but am working on it…)

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Far from the maddening cloud

Reading some of the coverage of Instagram’s change in their terms of service, you’d have thought a murder had been committed. Or maybe that the world was about to end.

A few years down what might once have been called the Web 2.0 road, well funded companies are finding that they have built their networks, grown their user bases, and now shareholders are looking for some return on their investment. We should not, therefore, be surprised that the rules are changing, that the digital ground we’ve been standing on is shifting beneath our feet.

Nothing at the end of the day is free. Somewhere down the line, somebody is paying – whether it is you with a subscription, a VC’s investment money or an advertiser taking advantage of your online data.

The cloud brings with it incredible advantages – access to your digital assets wherever you are, no matter what device you are using. The ability to share with others, to collaborate with them, to enable people to remix your work and share it on.

Thanks to the cloud – and whatever it was called before it was the cloud – we are all writers, photographers  film makers, publishers, producers, networkers, community organisers. It gives us access to unimaginably large groups of people who will have an interest in what we are doing, and the tools to spark a conversation with all those people.

It also has its downsides though. As ever, there’s a tradeoff. Sometimes that tradeoff will be worthwhile. Lots of Instagram users obviously thought that it wasn’t – and that’s fine. Services and products will live and die as a result of how they manage their service, and balance the needs of the users and the needs of their balance sheet.

What’s important I think, to consider, is that part of the shift towards cloud, with all the advantages mentioned above, also is putting control over our cultural assets into the hands of corporations whose only mission is to generate a profit. Amazon is not your local library. Apple isn’t the British Museum.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this – I’m not making a political or economic point here. But if all your books aren’t in fact your own, and in fact are merely rented from Amazon on your Kindle; or those music tracks you thought were yours can be taken away from you without you being in control – then that’s a worrying thing and everyone need to approach this carefully.

Likewise with your social media content. If you don’t want your photos popping up in adverts for pile cream, then don’t put them on Instagram (or indeed probably anywhere on the internet).

So what to do? I think just be aware. When people say to you, “use this site, it’s free!”, remember that it isn’t. If you store content you created yourself online, make sure you have a copy of your own. If any of your content matters so much to you that you don’t want anyone re-using it in ways you can’t control, don’t put it on the internet.

In effect, don’t trust anyone, particularly tech startup companies, or indeed giant corporations. They won’t be around forever and they won’t always keep their word. Most of the time that’s fine, and the trade-off between control and convenience works out for everyone.

But we all have content, assets, that matter to us – and don’t entrust those to anyone you don’t know, no matter how slick their user interface.

ifttt – an absurdly useful little tool

If this…then that (commonly known as ifttt) is a ridiculously brilliant little thing.

It allows you to set automated tasks based on your activities online – and is as easy to use as clicking a few buttons – no complicated wrangling with the likes of Yahoo! Pipes here.

Here’s an example. You can tell ifttt that when you post a photo on your phone to Instagram, it should copy it across and post it in your Flickr stream too.

Or. you could tell ifttt that when you save a bookmark in Pinboard, it should also create a link post in your Tumblr site.

The ‘recipes’ page on the ifttt site is full of examples of how users are stitching together loads of online services to create something new.

I set something up recently that made me feel a bit better about the photos I share online. I already have my Instagram photos sent to Flickr – and Flickr remains my main online photo archive. So, I added a rule to ifttt to save any photos that appear on Flickr to my Dropbox account.

Of course, Dropbox syncs files automatically with all my computers, so this means I get a local copy of my photos saved, giving a bit more peace of mind.

Now, I’ll admit my use of ifttt is pretty boring. Anyone doing anything more exciting?

Living on a cloud

While despatched on a mission of digital mercy a few weeks ago Mr Briggs (of this parish) and I fell to comparing our computers. Or rather he fell to ridiculing my rather ancient Samsung laptop (seven years old I think, it doesn’t like to process video, original power supply fell apart and it now boasts a rather lovely Maplin back up device). Apple fans do tend to look upon me with fear tinged with pity when I unpack the machine.

I explained to Dave that all I really need is an OS to show me a browser because I live in the cloud. He’s become slightly cloud obsessed lately with visions of Chromebooks floating before his eyes. When he challenged me to write a blog post about my online working I realised that that I’m still not quite there.

The Basics

I do rely heavily on those lovely people at Google. They handle my mail for a start. A huge variety of email addresses are sent into my email account (or collected by GMail from mailboxes) and the system handles them smoothly. I virtually never see any spam and it is rare (though not unheard of) for real mail to get caught in the spam filter. I have a couple of Android devices that sync happily with the big G’s servers and lo: mail wherever I need it.

And I make a lot of use of Google Docs. Or Google Drive as we must now call it (what are they going to call the self-directed cars then?). The word processor meets my day to day needs.

Google Spreadsheets meet my fairly simple requirements perfectly well. There was a time when I demanded much of my spreadsheets but those days are mostly behind me. And for the days when they aren’t I have Google Fusion Tables.

Paying for stuff

Mountain View doesn’t seem to be able to deliver a decent task manager. For this I must turn to the excellent Remember The Milk. It’s idiosyncratic but it is fast, in the cloud and it has a cow logo which is nice.

For presentations I am inexorably drawn to SlideRocket. This is NOT cheap but it does make slideshows look good and its library system is easy to understand and flexible. If, like me, you create a lot of slideshows and then embed them all over the place it is probably worth the money. I guess it must be worth the money or I wouldn’t pay. I wish it cost less money though.

I use Hootsuite to help me manage my extensive social media real estate. I even pay them a little.

Other toys

I do use Dropbox but I haven’t fallen in love with it.

I’m more enthusiastic about Evernote. Especially since its Android app has got so good.

Google Reader is quite annoying but I haven’t found anything better for subscribing to blogs and other sites via their RSS feeds. And it handles my podcasts quite well.

What I still don’t do in the cloud.

Serious document prep. When I have a big report to prepare I will do the grunt work in Google Drive but I’ll apply the final formatting offline in Libre Office because it packs a lot more formatting oomph. And Scribus and InkScape are still my go-to guys for what we used to call DTP.

Stills and video editing. Actually simple edits are now pretty easy to do on things like Picnik (now integrated into Google+ of course). For stills there’s the GIMP for video there’s Kdenlive and for sound Audacity, natch.

When the rain comes

There are two big risks with leaving your stuff lying on random servers scattered around the world:

  • other people might see the data without my permission
  • the data might vanish or be locked away from me

So I fret a quite a bit about security. Google has good tools and I try to keep an eye on account activity, change passwords and use 2-factor authentication and so on. As to people being allowed in without my knowledge. I try not to think about that. This does make moving between machines less than frictionless but it seems to be sensible.

And I regularly take copies of my data and documents out of the internet and hide them in a lovely little Buffalo Terastation where they nestle quietly on a RAID. Google’s Data Liberation Front is a bit marvellous in this regard.

Luckily no-one asks me to do any heavy coding, design or other things that require a sooper-dooper machine. I suppose I could do that on a virtual box but that’s hardly the same.

But the crucial question is, when the old laptop finally gives up the ghost should I buy a shiny Chromebook or just shove Linux on a passing laptop?

New Chromebooks – worth the bother?

Google have announced a new model of their Chromebook – the web only laptop that runs their Chrome operating system, which essentially consists of a browser and not much else.

As well as the laptop, there’s now a desktop machine too – which is rather reminiscent of the Mac Mini.

Both look like nice bits of hardware – but just how useful is a computer that only runs web based apps? ReadWriteWeb featured two contrasting views recently – one for, one against.

I’ve never actually seen a Chromebook, and am pretty sure I don’t know anybody that owns one (this in itself is probably telling). I do however have a bit of experience with something similar.

A while ago I blogged about my investment in a Lenovo S205 netbook. After a little while I got bored with it, and decided to replace Windows 7 with Ubuntu as the machine’s operating system. I probably should have been mowing the lawn or something at the time.

Anyway, as part of setting up the machine, I made it boot up Chromium (the open source cousin of Chrome that ships on Linux based systems) automatically, and so I pretty much just use the machine within the web – I don’t run any native programs at all.

The truth is, it’s pretty handy and I reckon I can get 80% of my work done on there. Thanks to Gmail, Google Docs, Evernote, Xero, Basecamp, Google Reader, Tweetdeck, WordPress and so on, I can get an awful lot done within the browser.

The downside comes when I need to do something with an actual file – such as using FTP to get a file online, or formatting a document in Word (Google Docs is fine for bashing in text and sharing notes, but not so good for well presented documents, I find). Editing images is another example of a common activity that right now isn’t fun to do within the browser.

(The other downside of using the Lenovo as a Chromebook-like device is the slow boot time – unlike the official ones, it doesn’t feature a solid state drive, which enables the Chromebook’s to boot in less than 10 seconds. I have, however, ordered an SSD for the S205, so we’ll see if it makes a difference!)

However, when I think about it, there could well be a role for Chromebook style devices, not necessarily for person use, but maybe within an organisational context. I could imagine a company’s sales team, or a group of field workers, having access to all the apps they need through a browser: email, docs, CRM etc, without any of the clutter of a traditional machine that in their roles they just wouldn’t need.

I’d probably prefer to have an iPad though. What do you think?

What I’ve been reading

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

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.