How in-the-browser software should work

I wrote recently about my growing unease with the addiction we have with ever greater convenience with our computing over the necessity of control. A lot of this is driven by cloud, and software-as-a-service (SaaS).

The convenience of SaaS is difficult to argue with. No installing software. No upgrades. Files accessible wherever you want them. The ability to share documents and collaborate on them with others in real time.

The downsides are all to do with control of your data. If it’s a paid service, and you stop paying, can you still access and open your files? Or if the company behind the system goes belly up? Is all your data locked up inside a system, or in a format you can’t reuse?

It is possible for those behind cloud based software to get it right though. Take a look at Dave Winer‘s new tool, Fargo. It’s an outliner (and outliners are cool, remember) and based in the browser. However, it also:

  • uses Dropbox for storage, so you have access to your files via Dropbox’s website, or downloaded locally to your computer, whenever you want. It’s not locked into Fargo’s own filesystem
  • uses the open standard OPML for the file format, so if you stop using Fargo for whatever reason, you can still load your files into any outliner that uses the OPML standard (which they all do, if they’re worth their salt)

This is how in-the-browser software ought to work. All the advantages of cloud based applications without giving up the control over our data that traditional desktop apps give.

Outliners are cool!

Do you use an outliner? Have you even heard of them?

An outline is a load of text, organised into a hierarchy. It looks like a bulleted list, with content at various levels, but proper ones do a bit more than that.

You can use Microsoft Word to make an outline, but dedicated tools are usually better. I use OmniOutliner on my Mac, although there are many others for every platform.

A proper outlining tool lets you open and close levels of the hierarchy to make it easy to navigate around it, format different parts of the outline, add extra columns for additional content and annotations.

OmniOutliner also lets me embed links to other documents in my outline, so if I want to expand on outline items in much more detail, I can do in a seperate text file, and just link to it in the outline.

Undoubtably the king of outliners is Dave Winer, who is also famous for being a pioneer of blogging, and RSS too. In fact, he has managed to combine all three, so he blogs within an outlining tool – which of course generates an RSS feed. Neato!

Winer has just released a new outliner, which you can use for free in the browser – it’s called Little Outliner. Give it a try!

I find an outliner most useful for:

  • planning presentations
  • designing a strcture for website content and navigation
  • planning acitivities in a project
  • making notes
  • planning reports and other long form bits of writing
  • organising a huge bunch of apparently random thoughts into something a bit less random

Outliners are another example of the excellence of open standards on computers. So I can export my outline in a file format called OPML, and then import it into other applications – such as a mind mapping tool for instance, to get a more visual overview of what I’ve been writing.

Outliners are a bit like spreadsheets to my mind – a simple tool to make much, much easier on a computer an activity that when using pen and paper would be difficult and annoying.

Do you use an outliner, ever? If not, might you be tempted now?

Decline and fall?

Twitter has been taking a bit of a pasting in the technology media world recently. Could this mean it is facing a bleak future, and could become the new MySpace, or Friendster? Or even – the horror! – FriendsReunited?

The biggest furore came when they recently changed the terms of use for their API or application programming interface – the data feed that various other services can use to manipulate Twitter content.

Effectively Twitter are limiting access to the API for many of the apps that people have come to know and love. For example, many of the ‘client’ applications people use to access Twitter, which are independent of Twitter itself, are going to find life more difficult in the future.

On top of annoying the developer community, Twitter has irritated its own user base too, with the over hasty censoring of accounts; and the growth of advertising on the platform.

This latter point is the important one. Twitter has grown into a vast social network, but hasn’t actually made much money over the last five years. What it needs to do is to turn it’s userbase into cash – and the best way of doing that, they think, is ads. Hence the clampdown on third party client apps – which may interfere with the way the ads appear to users.

Finally, a few folk are feeling increasingly nervous about the fact that content they create, such as tweets, isn’t owned by them. It’s all held in a database by Twitter, and they can choose to do with it what they will.

To a certain extent, people should probably just stop whining. After all, Twitter never claimed to be anything other than a for profit corporate company – this day was going to come sooner or later. But given the way Twitter has developed, their recent behaviour does stick in the craw somewhat.

  • Who came up with the idea for @ replies? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the idea for hashtags? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the bird motif? Not Twitter – it was a third party developer.
  • Who puts all the content into Twitter? Not Twitter – it’s the users.

The list can go on. Again, all those people who invested time, content and ideas into Twitter have little to complain about, really. Twitter never claimed to be open source. They’re free to take people’s suggestions and incorporate them as they please. That’s part of the deal with using a ‘free’ service.

However, people have started to hit back. app.net is a new Twitter clone with a slight difference: you have to pay $50 to use it. This means no ads, an open API and no corporations interfering with the way the service runs.

It also provides an option to download all your data, which kind of answers the content control issue.

I’ve started using it and my profile is just here: https://alpha.app.net/davebriggs. It’s slow, as you can imagine any new network is – let alone one that you have to pay to join. I’m not convinced it will succeed as anything other than an online ghetto for people who have fallen out of love with Twitter.

Also, remember Diaspora? Thought not. They tried to do a similar thing, but to Facebook. Didn’t work – nobody cared enough.

Others like Dave Winer (the somewhat cantankerous tech legend who invented RSS amongst other things) are promoting a much more open way of publishing, where people control their own servers running their own software, and through protocols and standards, they talk to one another. In other words, decentralising the whole social networking concept.

An example of this emerged recently, called tent.io.

This makes sense for people with the chops to run software like this, and perhaps to serious, professional content creators. But for people chatting about what’s happening on Xfactor? Probably not.

What does this mean for digital engagers in government and beyond?

Not a lot. Keep calm and carry on, as the increasingly irritating posters, tea towels, coasters and rolls of toilet paper keep telling us. Twitter isn’t going away. Many of these debates are fairly arcane and only of interest to the tiny percentage of the population that actually care.

Twitter remains an easy to access, free to use channel for people to quickly share their thoughts about what is happening to them at that moment, and it has enormous reach too.

For those that do worry about owning your content, keeping records and backing up, you can always make use of tools like ifttt to keep a copy of everything you publish.

Twitter will be with us for a long while yet.