Librarians stake their future on Open Source

Linux.com is running and article on how a group of librarians Georgia Public Library Service have developed an open source enterprise class library management system that has the potential to revolutionise the way large scale libraries are run.

You can read the article here.

The production system is code named Evergreen, and you can find out more about it here, and use the working system, here.

My first impression of it is that I like it, it’s simple to use and doesnt feel like an OPAC, like the hugely disappointing http://www.worldcat.org does.

Unfortunatly I can’t seem to login to the system with the demonstration username and passwords, but I am really interested in trying out the Shelf Browser feature.

eStarling : Cool wi-fi enabled Flickr photo frame

Came across this flickr enabled LCD Frame on ThinkGeek.

It looks like quite neat, it’s a standalone wi-fi LCD photo frame that connects to your wireless network and automatically displays images emailed to it in a slideshow. You can also specify an RSS feed from flickr based on tagged keywords.

For me its yet another example of how web based services are being integrated into every day objects. In some instances these border on the ridiculous ( flickr enabled umbrella ), in other cases the integration is subtle and quite useful like this. I personally like the idea of having a photo frame that will randomly display different pictures based on criteria I specify. Especially if its simple to use and doesn’t require me to have to think too much about how I can get it to work. The RSS Integration with flickr was a nice extension that doesnt detract at all from its primary function which is to display your photos.

** Since posting this up, someone has commented below with first hand experience of this product, please read his comments, it appears that the device isn’t as wonderful as it first sounds. Thanks very much for the heads up Mike.

snipit.org – intelligent bookmark management and information sharing

Alan Dix, has been running his snipit service for a while now. It’s an intelligent bookmarking service that is a cross between web bookmarks and a web notepad. You can use it to snip web pages, or selected content on a web page ( text, images etc. ), you can then share this information with other users. Snipit also examines each snip and tries to work out what kind of thing it is. If it recognises the snip it suggests things you may want to know about or do to the snip.

You can register for a free account at www.snipit.org

The problem with Second-Life is … it just sucks!

Ok, here’s my take on it. If I had to sum second-life up in a sentence it would be “Its just IRC with crappy avatars”. Far too many people think that its a game that you “play”. But it isn’t, its a virtual world that tries to provide real world metaphors so that users can be part of virtual communities, set up virtual businesses, make money, or simply lounge around try to look cool. There’s nothing wrong with that … but it just isnt compelling. Please spare me all that disingenuous crap that there’s 2 million registered users so that means it must be really popular! Hell … I registered for a free hotmail account once … I cant remember the last time I actually used it … 😉

For ages I’ve been refusing to sign up for an account on the grounds, rather facetiously, that I have a real-life, and I dont want to waste it away in an environment I knew I would loose interest in. But the other day I decided I’d give it a try. It took me about two hours to realise I didn’t like the clunky interface and crappy graphics, and further two hours to realise I actually hated the fact that it wasnt really a game.

My ulterior motive for signing up was to see how I could use the scripting engine to create some real world physics simulations, and i’m not sure what engine they are using its supposed to Havok2, but it doesnt feel like Havok at all.

As for the real world metaphor …. it still sucks, and I think its given far more credit than it deserves.

To understand my take on this this check this out: The current stats on www.secondlife.com are:

Total Residents: 1.9250,245
Logged In the Last 60 Days: 789,400
Online Now: 8,661
US$ Spent Last 24h : $652,969
LindeX Activity Last 24h: $135,163

Here’s goes – To begin with 2 Million registered users doesnt equate to 2 million active users. I’ve been trying to find out if the 789,400 users logged in the last 60 days, is the number of unique residents who have been active, or is it, as I suspect, the number of times anyone has logged in. Why do I suspect that? Well for arguments sake lets say each person logs in maybe twice a day ( assuming they have a real life ) that means in 60 days an individual would log in 120 times therefore 789,400 / 120 = 6579 (which I’ve rounded up). This isnt too far off the number of users currently online. Is that because like any game you tend to have a hard core group of users plus a bunch of casual users? Lets be generous lets say that the ballpark is really more like 12,000 active users. Even with that its not an enormous community. You can contrast this with other MMORPG like World of Warcraft which surpassed 5 Million registered users in December 2005! And theres a hell of a lot more than 12,000 people online in that virtual world at any one point in time than your ever likely to see in Second Life. Yes I know the press are raving that Second Life might actually exceed WoW’s number of registerd users … but trust me SL has a long way to catch up!

Whats is impressive about SL is that approx 12,000 active users somehow managed to spend $652,969 in Second Life in 24 hours. Which roughly equates to $55 per user in a 24 hour period. So what are these people spending their money on? I have a theory about that too. To begin with you can buy real world goods in Second Life, i.e. a Dell PC, boooks through Amazon etc. Which is what drives up the real $US figure, and thats really cool … its like IRC with crappy avatars but you have a shopping interface 😉

The Linden transactions for virtual goods on the other hand are a different matter. Firstly the actual reported Linden figures can be easily influenced if people know how to as reported by Reuters, to date this isnt a defect Linden Labs have managed to resolve, at least not to my knowledge, and they’ve not been commenting on it.

Secondly the types of businesses that are making profits in SL kind of fall into the gold-rush model. Back when Gold Miners used to descend on a midwest town with hopes of striking it rich, generally the only people who made any money where those who were selling Pots, Pans, Shovels, and supplies to the miners. Its much the same with Second Life. Avatar Designer and Virtual Real estate developers are making a profit selling Virtual wares. There is one additional group thats making a lot of money too, and thats the sex industry – and yes it has found its way into Second Life. You can trade you Linden’s for virtual pole dances, the services of a virtual escort or just buy images! I guess the notion that Pornography Drives Technology is still true even today. Personally I dont see the attraction certainly not with the graphics engine SL uses eeek … pixelated porn …*shudder* … maybe I’m just old fashioned but what’s wrong with going out with real women?

Recently Second Life has become a bit of a gimmick for real world companies many of which have set up a Virtual prescence in Second Life in an attempt to make themselves look cool, and its been successful in that it has generated a lot of media attention. Hey even Talis have a Virtual Office in there … (were still trying to convince our CEO that our real offices should have Pool tables and jacuzzi’s too – but hes not buying into it! C’mon Dave you know you want to 😉 )

Unfortunatly these gimmicks have a tendency to backfire Sun was berated recently for holding a developers Q&A session about the release of Open Source Java in Second Life. Dell also fell foul of this, and so have others.

As a game Second Life is just boring after your first twenty minutes flying around like superman dishing out your card to anyone with an avatar that looks like a hot chick – erm … but they might not be. Note to self: Dont put any real details into SL profile!

As metaphor for the real world Second Life isn’t compelling enough, at leasnt not for me. I’m not interested in buying virtual real estate, or setting up shop in there. If I want to buy from Dell or Amazon its a shed load quicker through a browser or using a phone than it is endlessly flying around and teleporting trying to find their virtual outlets, and trying to interact with the clunky UI. Which means you cant be task oriented in there you actually have to want to turn buying goods into an adventure to be attracted to SL as a metaphor for getting real world activities done and I just don’t buy into that. I guess that’s why they only have 12,000 out of 2 million users active?

Anyway I’m off to battle the forces of darkness in World of Warcraft!

What does Simplicity mean when it comes to software?

Our geek bookclub at Talis has been reading 37Signals Getting Real. It’s interesting text that contains for the most part a common sense advice with which we as a group can relate to. But one of the things thats been grating on my mind for a while now is the notion that simplicity sells, and by simplicity im referring to a lack of features. Unfortunatly whilst I was drafting this entry Joel got there first 😉 ( LiveWriter is excellent for offline editing of blog entries, unfortunatly it doesnt stop you getting pipped to the post!)

Anyway its well worth reading Joel’s post, I think hes absolutely right in pointing out that a lack of features isnt what made the iPod or BaseCamp such a success but the fact that amongst other attributes both these products were built to correspond to a user model that resulted in a high degree of usability. To my mind the problem we face in this industry is that in order to build useable systems we need to accept that we can only do that by understanding the users mental model, we can no longer afford to build software solutions as simply the delivery of a set of discrete requirements and leave usability as something we can bolt on at the end when we’ve got the rest of the system working. We have to understand our users and put them first.

Programmers are generally bad at user interface design?

Was intrigued when I read James O’ Coplien latest blog entry: The interface is the Program, and it ain’t Agile. Coplien discusses, quite correctly I believe, the fact that historically developers have tended to be very bad at building good user interfaces. Coplien discusses this in the context of Agile development groups and how usability is rarely captured as a story because stories in themselves are generally short-term goals that you want to achieve in the space of an iteration or even a sprint. Therefore because Agile teams are rapidly making changes to their application its hard to be able to do the focussed studies and analysis that is required in order to gain an understanding of how useable the application your building is. Fundementally programmers are not User Interface designers – Coplien attributes this to several reasons, which include the fact that university courses on software engineering have often done little more than pay lip service to HCI or User Interface Design, its often a topic that undergraduates are only ever given the most basic of introductions to.

I want to expand a little on what Coplien has covered so well …

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked closely with Alan Dix and Russell Beale, the authors of Human Computer Interaction. I do class myself as a developer but I have had a strong interest in HCI, and user interface design and its an area I’ve been interested in and reading around for the best part of a decade. In that time I’ve often had to work in teams where its apparent that other developers dont either understand the need for HCI, or even how to begin to think about it.

In my own experience this comes from the fact that programmers tend to focus on the mechanics of building an interface, getting the right framework, and then designing around the limitations of the toolset they have picked. Invariably they tend to spend tonnes of time just focusing on getting the UI to work and this UI is designed from the perspective of satisfying the flows defined in requirements documents or design docs like Use Cases. You can contrast this with people trying to use the user interface, who dont care how it was built, or what the limitations in the underlying technologies were, these people just want something they can use. To me its this emphasis that seperates a working interface from a “good” user interface. Good User Interface are designed around the user, unfortunatly most user interfaces tend to be designed around building something that satisfies a series of discrete requirements.

I dont think it’s fair to simply say that programmers arent capable and can’t do good UI design, the truth is that on most software projects, and in most teams, it just isnt their emphasis.

In order to improve things developers need to be taught the importance of user interface design. Our development group at Talis is a great example of this. As a team we know we need get better at understanding how to build user interfaces. One of the activities we undertook recently was to get everyone to read Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers as part of our geek book club. It’s an excellent text that introduces programmers to key concepts in user interface design.

However as more and more applications are being delivered over the web developers should take the time to read Jakob Nielsen’s seminal text Designing Web Usability – The practice of Simplicity. Bruce Tognazzini’s TOG on Interface, might be a little dated but its still an incredibly good text and has a great section on conceptual models.

Most importantly though: one of the things our group has realised is that User Interface Design and User Interaction Design are specialised skills, and whilst its important that developers should be encouraged to learn more about this area, its vitally important that organisations recruit people with these specialised skills into their teams. To that end Talis is openly recruiting for individuals who specialise in HCI/User Interface Design, so if you think you fit the bill and its an area your passionate about, and you’d like to work for an organisation that takes this very seriously then check out the job spec here and send your CV along with a covering letter to team.talent@talis.com.