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

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

Tools for writing

I use a ridiculous number of apps for writing stuff down digitally. It all depends on the context!

Rough notes, ideas and that sort of thing tend to be stored in Evernote. It’s easy, and ubiquitous and everything gets kept in one place.

Blog posts are written in MarsEdit, an offline editor. My local drafts folder is full of half-written, half-baked posts which occasionally get resurrected later on.

Any coding I have to do usually happens in BBEdit, or occasionally something like Nano in a terminal window.

Proposals and other documents which I’m the only person likely to ever edit are done in Pages, and then exported to PDF for distribution. I just like the way Pages works in terms of laying things out and so on.

Documents and reports that I need to share in an editable format with colleagues or customers have to be written in Word. Since upgrading to the 2011 version on the Mac I have found myself getting angry much less!

Longer documents, such as various guides and handbooks I am working on tend to be planned using an outliner tool. My favourite at the moment is OmniOutliner.

I sometimes use a mind mapping tool to plan a document though, which is a bit more visual. My favourite mind mapping app is MindNode.

(As well as for documents, an outliner or mind mapper is really useful for planning presentations.)

For the actual writing of bigger documents, I use Scrivener. This lets you break down the document into smaller bits, which can then be dragged around and re-ordered. Scrivener then sticks it all together into one document for you when you’re ready to publish. It’s great!

Whether using OmniOutliner or MindNode, I can import my outlines into Scrivener by exporting them to an OPML file, which then loads into Scrivener, giving me all the headings under which I need to bash text.

One type of editor that I don’t find myself using are the stripped down, distraction free apps like Writeroom or Byword.

What apps do you use for writing?

Yammer time

One of the most talked about sessions at last weekend’s LocalGovCamp was about Yammer.

(For those who don’t know, Yammer is basically a private version of Twitter with knobs on that works within an organisation.)

Tom Phillips, who led the session, wrote it up on the group blog:

I have a firm view, echoed by some points made by others, that while many threads on Yammer start there, bloom and fade away, a lot of conversations – as is the case on social media generally – start outside, come in, for a variety of reasons/motives, grow, and then fade. Or do they fade? There is evidence in my own work world that they often actually go offline, and often become mainstream topics in “real life”, as it were.

Here’s a video of the session (it’s on YouTube in case you can’t see it below):

Yammer certainly seems popular with a growing number of local authorities. It goes to show the potential in just making it easy for people to publish stuff to their colleagues – no need for workflows or processes.

It’s also popular because it is incredibly simple to deploy and starts out being free.

Yammer is exactly the sort of application that, left to traditional implementation styles, could take years and large amounts of money to make happen in a large organisation.

Instead, with a couple of clicks, it’s up and running. No need for a programme board, a project initiation document or milestones.

It’s an example of the way technology is changing. Anyone now has the power to roll out an enterprise-grade software package, as long as they can use a mouse and a keyboard.

The browser problem

Delib share some interesting stats on browser usage of their products.

Here you can see that IE6 is used by more than a third of our Citizen Space administrators, but only about a tenth of the total visitors. At the moment, there is clearly a need to continue supporting IE6 for our clients, but it does seem a shame when this investment could be put towards improving the user experience of the site’s end users.

What is possibly more worrying is that administrative users of Delib’s stuff (ie the folk in government) operating with IE6 and IE7 combined is 82.9%!

As Steph pointed out to me the other day, from a web designer’s point of view, IE7 isn’t much of an improvement on version 6, and Google are already dropping support for it in their web apps like Docs and Gmail.

I still really don’t understand why it would be so hard for public sector workers to have a second browser available to them, even if it’s hidden away so only the really keen can find it. The support overhead would surely be minimal.

After all, if you want people to do a good job, give them the tools they need to do them!

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.

No more Windows?

Well, in a decade perhaps.

If you’ve ever wondered if it were possible to write fondly about Windows, well, James Gardner (kind of) gives it a go in his recent post on the desktop upgrade about to take place at the DWP:

It feels funny, doesn’t it, thinking about Windows in the context of being irrelevent, after all these years we’ve relied on it. I guess it proves, again, that change is the only constant.

As James puts it earlier in his post:

I think this will likely be the last verion of Windows we ever widely deploy, though.

The reason? I think we’ll have fewer workloads that actually require a heavy deskop stack. Today, of course, we have all this legacy that’s coupled to the desktop, but in a decade, I really doubt that will be the case. Most of our stuff will arrive via the browser.

So it looks like Scott McNealy and Sun were right all along. The network is the computer.

Open source and government

Another post I have been sat on and chewing over for a little while…

Charles Arthur in the Guardian highlighted an interesting area of discussion in the use of open source in government a little while ago. He reports on the views of Liam Maxwell, the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who’d like to see a move away from proprietary software such as Microsoft Office within local authorities.

Cllr Maxwell would like to see the Cabinet Office mandate the use of the Open Document file format within all levels of government. This would be as opposed to the file formats used by Microsoft’s products, as well as other systems in use in the public sector.

Cllr Maxwell states:

If one council goes to a service provider such as Capita and asks for a change to its Revenues and Benefits system so it works with OpenOffice and ODF instead of Microsoft Office, Capita will tell them to go away. But if government mandates it, then Capita or any of these other companies that do this work for councils could get it done in six months. It’s a dysfunctional market because it’s set by standards which are set at the centre.

A bit of background for the non-dorks out there. The Open Document Format (ODF) is a non-proprietary file standard for use in office productivity suites, which include things like word processors, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations.

The flagship software to use ODF is OpenOffice.org, as alluded to by Cllr Maxwell. OpenOffice.org was developed predominantly by Sun Microsystems as an open source office suite, which then fed into their proprietary offering, StarOffice.

Now, I am a fan of free and open source software and I try to use it wherever I can. But there is so much misunderstanding out there about the benefits – especially around cost – that I do worry about whether people’s minds are filled with free-as-in-beer.

Here are some of the issues with this particular proposal. I do want to make clear that none of these are insurmountable, nor am I in the business of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. I’m certainly no apologist for Microsoft, their software or their business practices. I want government to make better use of open source, just that it needs to do so with its eyes open.

The idea of the Cabinet Office mandating use of ODF sounds good, but the naivety to think that this would happen for free is remarkable – there’s no way those big boys would do that much work and not make customers pay for it somewhere down the line.

Then there is training – the idea that the majority of council workers could use OpenOffice as well as they use MS Office right away is rather optimistic. In my experience, folks can’t even cope with upgrades between versions of Word, let alone a whole new system! The costs need to added in: training, writing documentation, loss of productivity while people figure out how to do stuff, or what they can’t do anymore that they used to, etc etc.

Next up with OpenOffice is the Oracle issue – they’ve already made significant changes to OpenSolaris since they bought Sun and there is no guarantee they won’t do the same to OpenOffice. Part of the pro-open source argument is sustainability, but if the sponsoring corporation (which owns the IP and drives development) doesn’t want to know then it would be very hard in practice for the community to get things up and running again.

(Actually, we kind of know what is happening here, as a separate organisation appears to have been formed to managed a fork of OpenOffice.org called LibreOffice. Confusion abounds!)

Next, support. Where is the organisation that can provide support to large organisations when it comes to switching over office suites? It would drown a council ICT department and I can’t think off the top of my head of any company providing this sort of service at scale for it to be outsourced to.

Finally – do we even know if ODF is better than the current alternatives? Where’s the benefit for the switch?

Now what I have written sounds like a massive anti-open source rant, but it isn’t. It’s just highlighting some of the issues. I suspect, for example, that the total cost of ownership of an open source ICT solution – certainly on the desktop – would be roughly the same as the Microsoft (or whoever) one, especially when you take into account select agreements etc.

The arguments in favour of open source need to be on the basis that the software is better, more reliable and stable, quicker and feature rich, and that it works for the government context – adapted for the sector in a cost effective, maintainable and supportable manner.

This brings in a number of issues, around business models for suppliers, procurement, understanding of licensing, copyright and IP, having actual coding knowledge within organisations.

Learning Pool is also a good example of taking open source, contextualising it, then implementing, supporting and maintaining it. We were recently asked to come up with a few bullet points outlining our approach and experiences, which I drafted up as:

  • There are cost savings to be made with open source, but only when the vendor can provide a genuinely comprehensive service that includes implementation and support as well as code. Otherwise the total cost of ownership can spiral.
  • The argument for open source must be based on better, not cheaper, software. We benefit from hundreds of people tracking bugs, developing plugins and testing betas which helps give our product the edge over proprietary rivals.
  • The flexibility of cloud based applications saves significant amounts of time and therefore money in providing upgrades and new features to customers – who don’t have the bother of installing patches etc.
  • Building sharing and collaboration between our customers into the business model has achieved far greater cost savings than either the open source foundation of our software, or the cloud based delivery of it. The fact that we don’t just tolerate, but rather encourage, our customers to share and redistribute resources means government is redesigning fewer wheels every day.

Having said that, we use the LAMP stack which is pretty much a won argument on open source in many ways, it’s other technology, especially on the desktop, where the debate needs to be refined and informed.

Discussions around open source use in government have to be based on pragmatism: is the OSS solution as good as the competition? Is it comaptible with other systems? What are the training overheads? What are the support, maintenance and development arrangements?

The truth is that replacing enterprise IT systems with open source alternatives is a lot more complicated than deciding to build a new website in WordPress. I quickly Googled for ‘open source ERP’ (ERP is Enterprise Resource Planning, those big internal systems made by people like SAP and Oracle, that run HR, finance, CRM and everything else) this afternoon, and the top result was something called Openbravo. I tweeted about it, and none of my contacts – even the open source IT analyst folks – had even heard of it.

It’s probably not surprising that people procuring this stuff run into the arms of the traditional vendors and system integrators.