Archive for March, 2008

Twitter – time for a killer app

March 25, 2008

The technology de jour seems to be Twitter, the increasingly popular micro-blogging service that allows you to post bite-sized, online updates on what you are doing at the moment. These 140-character texts are then circulated to groups of registered friends or, if you choose, placed on public display. There’s a YouTube video that provides a basic introduction.

Twitter was originally envisaged as a tool to exchange with friends simple messages (or “tweets”) about what you’re doing at any particular moment – “In the tea shop enjoying lemon drizzle cake” – but it seems to be morphing into more of a conversational tool which supports highly fluid, spontaneously forming online discussions. Those that love this new form of communication – the “twitterati” – seem to be revelling in it. The TweetVolume tool even lets you gauge what people are particularly interested in at any one time (try entering Obama and Clinton).

If you think about what it actually does, Twitter and services like it (such as Pownce) provide a kind of device agnostic form of paging. But is there a killer app for Twitter – beyond facilitating conversations? LunchoverIP has some material on how traffic news is being streamed through Twitter in St. Louis, and Howard Rheingold has a page of links and news items, including information on how protesters use it for co-ordinating meetings, but none of these really fit the bill.

An alternative view is provided by David Tebbutt of Information World Review who recently wrote: “If ego-driven, time wasting blog postings are being shrunk and shifted to Twitter, then what’s left ought to be a better, more thoughtful, blogosphere.”

Ouch…

Or should I say:

Squawk!

Oxford dining

March 21, 2008

My brief sojourn to the dreaming spires was completed with a day at the Towards Low Carbon ICT conference. A series of academic and business speakers explored issues around developing and procuring ICT equipment that saves energy and uses less of the world’s resources in its manufacture. All this will be useful as I gear myself up to begin editing JISC’s forthcoming report on greening ICT.

In the true spirit of the occasion, the conference lunch was officially described as consisting of “fair trade, organic, local produce and, where possible, open source, food.” I wasn’t quite sure which parts of the lunch were open source – I suppose it must have been the dishes made to recipes that have fallen out of copyright – but it seemed to go down well with the attendees.

This eco-lunch was extremely tasty, but I have to confess was trumped by a business lunch I had had earlier in the week at Raymond Blanc’s Brasserie Blanc: the tarte citron was sublime. However, my Bed and Breakfast establishment won first prize for the most unusual meal of the week – they had the following on offer for breakfast:

Marmalade Omelette.

Why is the UK so bad at using open source software?

March 19, 2008

As the economy suffers, and tax revenues start to fall, bearing down on spending within the public sector is becoming increasingly important. As just one example, the UK Government is looking for half a billion pounds of savings in the education sector’s total procurement costs. One would’ve thought, then, that open source software solutions such as Linux and OpenOffice, which have no licence fees associated with them, would be seeing an increase in take up.

Apparently not. At the Risk Management in Open Source Procurement conference in Oxford yesterday, speaker after speaker gave examples of other European countries with large-scale, public sector, open source procurement strategies. Notable examples that were mentioned included a 120,000 Linux-based desktop installment in schools across Macedonia and the outfitting of the French Parliament with open source-based desktop systems. But in the UK, we’re still lagging behind.

There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important is the number of barriers present in the process of procurement. It seems that open source software suppliers are not being offered a level playing field when it comes the bureaucratic procedures and check-lists involved in making procurement decisions within public sector bodies. A high profile example involves Becta, the school’s technology agency, and its recent decision not to include the popular open source package Moodle as a potential e-learning platform.

The good news is that, judging from the level of interest at the conference it seems there is growing willingness on the part of the public sector to work on this, alongside moves amongst open source developers to work together through consortia.

If this is something you’re interested in, watch this space. I’ve been commissioned to write up the main findings of the conference (in an interesting way!) so there will be more coming out on this in a few weeks’ time.

Babel TV – a set-top box or a Linux PC?

March 13, 2008

The announcements of ultra-cheap, Linux-based PCs, which I wrote about last week, reminded me of Peter Dawe’s Babel TV, which was launched back in November. This is also based on Linux and combines a computer and Internet access device, running common open source software tools such as OpenOffice, with a video recorder (PVR) and Freeview TV set-top-box.

Dawe is widely respected as a technologist and credited with being one of the founding fathers of mainstream Internet in the UK as he set up Pipex, the UK’s first commercial Internet service provider. During a round-table discussion at the 2005 PACT Content Lab conference in Birmingham Dawe announced that the day was rapidly approaching when a basic PC with Internet access and IPTV facilities could be given away with a box of cornflakes. And he wasn’t joking – he claimed the costs would be recouped either through advertising and sponsorship or providing online services at a cost along the model of mobile phone handsets (which are heavily subsidised by the telecoms networks).

Babel TV is not free (at £295) but there’s a also monthly charge for online back-up storage, so given his comments in Birmingham, one can perhaps see where this might be heading.

A geek flowchart

March 11, 2008

Continuing the theme of Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons, I see there is also an obituary in the New York Times, which includes a spoof flowchart of the life of the typical geek, beginning with early exposure to D+D.

It seems from the flowchart (bottom left hand corner of the full diagram) that, since I am now blogging about the diagram, I am one short step away from being in a basement, by myself, in the dark.

If only this were true. A bit of peace and quiet wouldn’t go amiss.

So farewell then to the twelve-sided dice

March 10, 2008

I was sadden to hear the news that Gary Gygax, co-inventor of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, has died. I confess that, like many computer scientists of my generation, I was an active player in my youth and I had one of the first copies of the UK version of the game. Although 1970s Britain may have been a grey and grim place of mass unemployment and stagflation, the game easily transported me to a magical land of dragons, trolls, swords, sorcery and heroes.

These games involved nothing more sophisticated than a group of people, lots of pens, graph paper, bags of imagination and of course the famous multi-sided dice collection. Computer scientists tend to have a reputation of being rather anti-social types who like to hide in cupboards but role-playing games could be intensely social and I’ve been involved in truly raucous games with a dozen or more players.

As far as I can tell D+D (as it was known) is the basis of the vast majority of modern computer games. I was interested to read in Gary’s obituary in the Guardian that although he accepted that computer games were inevitable he wasn’t that enamoured with them, preferring the sociability of the original role playing game. He is quoted as saying: “Your imagination is not there the same way it is when you’re actually together with a group of people”.

Web 2.0 keeps you busy

March 6, 2008

I said at the beginning of the year that social networks and other Web 2.0 activities might start to tail off, partly because of the considerable amount of time involved in keeping everything up-to-date and tracking all of your friends’ content. Well, it looks like I’ve been backed up by Liberal Democrat MP, Steve Webb, who told the Empowering Citizens symposium the other day:

“Anyone who thinks they can do Web 2.0 in their spare time can forget it. If you go down this avenue be prepared to spend some time on it, or pay someone to spend time on it.”

Sadly, not all of us can get our hands on public funds in order to keep our Facebook accounts spick and span.

Microsoft hitchhikes to the stars

March 3, 2008

Last week I was at a conference of digital geographers. There was much talk of how Google Earth has changed the public’s appreciation of their subject, but now Microsoft seem have gone one better.

The company is to launch a new tool called WorldWide Telescope. This uses computer visualisation techniques to hitch together feeds from a number of different satellites and scientific telescopes to create a navigable image of the universe – stars, solar systems and galaxies. It is described in Microsoft’s pre-launch video as providing “a kind of magic carpet that lets you navigate the universe”.

It’s going to be freely available from Spring 2008. All we need now is a guide with “Don’t Panic” written on the front cover.