Archive for January, 2008

Untidy desks go graphical

January 29, 2008

A long, long time ago computer scientists came up with the idea that the way to structure human interaction with the PC was through the metaphor of the office desktop. So you have things like wastepaper baskets and folders full of files. But you cannot really simulate the organised ‘chaos’ of the piles of papers and folders that is the real desktop of the average worker – until now.

A company called BumpTop has used research undertaken by students at the University of Toronto to produce a prototype computer interface which attempts to do just that. Using the new interface, documents can be scattered about the desktop in disorganised piles, pushed around the surface or even picked up and flung from one corner of the desk to another. Documents can even be made to stick out slightly from a pile – just like in real life.

It’s difficult to fully do justice to this with words alone, so it is worth having a peek at a YouTube video the company have made. At the point in the video where they introduce the ‘degree of tidyness’ parameter I began to wonder whether this may all be an elaborate student practical joke. But no, it appears to be a real project with an attendant published, peer-reviewed conference paper.

Frankly, this is a pretty brilliant piece of ‘left-field’ thinking because they have taken the desktop metaphor to its ultimate logical conclusion and thereby replicated the useful messiness of real life. Not everyone will want this of course – some people like the way that PCs force them to be tidy, but for many people there is a lot of implicit knowledge contained in the way that piles of documents are ordered and placed on their physical desks. I think it also fits with the prevailing direction of travel for human computer interaction, which is rapidly becoming more fluid and natural.

Ironically, back in real life, I came across this in an IEEE technical magazine, read about it, and then when I came to post this blog item, I couldn’t find the magazine on my desk for two days.

Social networking eats time and bandwidth (allegedly)

January 23, 2008

Last week I predicted that social networking would narrow, but deepen, as the faddish nature of it started to wear off. There may be another reason why the vast numbers of people involved may start to drop: employers are waking up to the productivity implications of the use of social networking tools in the workplace.

A poll of office workers conducted by Global Secure Systems (GSS) (in association with the organisers of the Infosecurity Europe 2008 conference) seems to indicate that large amounts of company time and network bandwidth are taken up by staff’s social networking activities.
According to the results, 41% of the sample admitted to visiting these kinds of sites at work and the pollsters calculated that they were spending “at least 30 minutes a day” on this activity. Two respondents even admitted to spending three hours a day on these services. Global Secure Systems then carried out a kind of ‘back of a fag packet’ calculation to arrive at the conclusion that social networking was “costing UK corporations close to £6.5 billion annually in lost productivity”. The calculation involved multiplying the average time spent on social sites by the number of office workers who have Internet access at work and their average salary. All this was duly picked up by the Times Online with the lurid headline: “Facebook and MySpace a threat to Britain’s competitiveness?”
There is an important message here, but I reckon such figures need to be taken with some degree of caution. Firstly, the poll information contained in the actual GSS press release doesn’t provide any detail of how the sample (of only 776 people – a little on the low side) was obtained (for example, what types of employees were polled and when and where). Secondly, the assumption is that all social networking is non-work related, but these technologies are in part altering the way people work. A journalist or a sales manager, for example, might quite legitimately be spending part of their working day on Facebook as this is where people with a particular interest can be found. 

Nor did the final calculation of the billions being wasted take account of the fact that not all employers actually allow the company Internet access to be used for non-business related activity. I know from conversations I have had with friends and acquaintances that many corporate companies severely restrict Internet access to a number of industry-related websites or, even more punitively, only allow access to the corporate intranet. 

Whether the calculation and its attendant headlines are strictly accurate or not, it is clear that there is the perception of a growing problem. GSS go on to point out that in a recent round table meeting of 20 chief information officers held by Infosecurity Europe 2008, one of the biggest concerns was how to manage social networking at work. There were estimates, for example, that as much as 30% of company network bandwidth was being taken up with Facebook.

So maybe the whole thing will just be turned off by large FTSE 500 companies who want some ‘real’ work to be done in company time. Ironically, this might happen just as some useful work-related ways of using the tools are being discovered.

Three predictions for 2008

January 15, 2008
As the year turns it is traditional to offer a few predictions for the future. Part of my work with JISC involves thinking about the future of technology and commissioning reports about the direction that computing will take. So I’ve dusted down the office crystal ball and here are three thoughts for the year ahead:

1. Energy will become a major issue within the computer technology industry. Widespread public concern about climate change, particularly following the UK’s Stern report, is working in tandem with real business worries about the rapidly rising costs of electricity. This twin effect is forcing the computer industry to seriously review its technologies and processes in order to reduce energy consumption. JISC TechWatch plans a report on this subject later in the year.
2. Social networking will narrow but deepen. There is a certain amount of faddishness about a lot of the fuss around social networking. Given the amount of time it takes to keep your network up-to-date and handle the ‘pokings’, wall postings and other social network paraphernalia, along with the recent worries about privacy, I suspect that some of this activity will start to die off in 2008. Those who remain, however, are likely to develop deeper relationships with the technology, making use of more services and features.

3. The use of touch and gesture to interact with computers (‘haptics’ in the jargon) will take off. I noted in a previous post that Bill Gates has been talking about this for some time, and he was at it again in his final speech to the Consumer Electronics Show last week. Gates’s ability to drive the future of the industry may be fading as he heads into charity work and retirement, but I think he’s got it right on this one, mainly because the iPhone has firmly implanted the idea of haptics in the minds of the general public. Using your fingers and hands as much as, or instead of, a mouse is just so intuitive it will take off.