Wednesday, June 29, 2011

First impressions of Google Plus

Oh crap I know nothing about this yet. Well here's some random guesswork and half-baked opinions.

Circles looks like Facebook in that it's about sharing privately even though unlike Facebook you can put someone in a circle of yours without asking them. Whether they're listening or not when you share with that circle you can't tell, but this is true in Facebook as well. This is like asymmetric "following" model in Twitter but more private. Asymmetric relationships are exactly what the web is - links - and they are key to the web's scalability. You don't need someone's permission to link to their web site from yours. This is why Twitter took off so quickly, especially amongst popular people (including celebrity academics) who were swamped by Facebook friend requests. They can share and others can respond but they needn't hear the backchat except from people they follow in return.

Sparks looks like Twitter in that its about sharing to (or following) the world. I guess you can enter short spark updates somehow but its not clear. Anyway unlike Twitter (and Buzz) you follow interests that you enter not people. That's dumb. A person with all their variety and interests are far more interesting than search terms ever will be. But it's probably smart for Google in other ways.

Hangout looks fantastic but too good to be true. Getting real people to do multi-person video conferencing is very tough unless you're young or there's an overriding need, e.g. for dispersed families. At work virtual meetings or distance learning would need more features including screen sharing.

Huddle - no idea. There's probably more...

Is it evil? Of course. Granted Circles has all the good hippie open social web Googlers on board - Chris Messina (inventor of the hashtag), Joe Smarr, Chris Chabot and others - so I expect I could download a Circles server for my domain one day, or point my domain to Google, again. The rest more explicitly relies on Google magic, though I'll bet Google will provide means to liberate data, compete, etc. But, look at it this way. Google only wants you to tell them all your groups and all your interests. They won't do anything with that data except provide services for you of course, like advertising. The social graph they could get from this would keep them king in advertising, crushing the competition.

Will it fix the social web? Right now commenting and sharing takes a ninja to pick the right strategy to share things with the right people. I often get an email with a comment posted to a collab space where someone's posted a Google Doc. Where do I put my comments? I don't think this will change this problem. Don't know what could, though Salmon might, maybe, if it weren't so completely inpenetrable. Also I still think for the University we should start with one Circle - everyone at the University, including hangers on - and have a Twitter like following model allowing everyone to share purely our stuff. We could do like Google (and everyone else) and stick the status update field and results near the top of every University web page and it could work. The other circles might be several steps too far, or it could be the groups model we've been waiting for.

Is it good? Let's face it, it's the genius production of brilliantly talented engineers. Anyone seriously knocking it at this stage is arrogant, but the web can do that to you.

Will it work? When all's said and done I'm still a Google fanboy. I hope so.

Looking forward to hearing about this on TWiG tonight.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Where has my blogging mojo gone?

Quite simply it's been stolen by the same fates that have projected me into management land. John, my manager for five years and a fixture in York's Computing Service for over thirty, retired last month and I'm filling his lived-in shoes until a permanent replacement is found. That leaves me as Acting Head of Web Services at the University of York until Easter at least, in charge of a talented six-strong web infrastructure team handling everything from systems administration (University web servers, Web CMS, Blackboard, ColdFusion, PHP, Oracle, MySQL) and university-wide identity management and provisioning, through to custom application development. Whilst the motivation for this blog - to act as a let out for some of the (hopefully) better ideas I've had in building a utopian vision of the perfectly joined up university web - remains as strong as ever, the freedom to voice my visions consequence-free has arguably vanished, at least for now.

My new acting role has not however robbed me of things to say. There is a plethora of amazing projects happening this year which I'm pleased to have the opportunity to shape and enable others to craft. For a start there's Google Apps. We've dabbled for long enough and York could be on the cusp of unleashing the full giddiness of these services onto its users shortly. Whether this will include revolutionising our moribund email and calendar services remains to be seen, but after years of consideration and due diligence cul-de-sacs and u-turns, there no doubt that this looks tantalisingly close. Then there's the portal. This is another old chestnut that's been chewed on and nibbled at for as long as I've been at York but which is at last being cooked up for real. Early days yet, but I look forward to seeing the first cuts of code that deliver a nicely presented front-door of joined up services to our users soon. Heck, that's all I've ever been interested in doing in this blog certainly. Throw in new collaborative tools (spaces, wikis and blogs - you know the score), digital signage, a home-made digital repository, better integrated timetabling, new e-Assessment tools, a stab - maybe, maybe - at automated lecture recordings finally, and a revitalised information strategy that demands things like Shibboleth, service-oriented architecture and centralised grouping infrastructure, and you can see that this is a pivotal year, in more ways than one.

There's no doubt that much of the work this year is being driven by the economic climate and particularly the Browne report. That "student experience" phrase is everywhere and delivering engaging tools for students is top of everyone's agenda. It strikes me that IT services will have to work very hard to really transform the impression that students have of the University, since so much of this is formed by interactions and experiences that are real, and not virtual. Nevertheless, simple, well-executed improvements can make a big difference, and I'll be working hard to try and filter out what will really make life easier for our students and staff, and deliver what's needed this year.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The RSS Myth

There is a broad misconception that RSS is the answer to all your information problems. "Don't lock your information in web pages," they say, "that's so old-school. Set it free in RSS feeds, so intermediating web sites that are groovier than yours - or even your end-users directly - can 'mash it up' anywhere and in any way they choose." It's an easy get out. No need for information architecture. It'll all be mashed up anyway. Just stick RSS buttons on every page you can think of, and it's job done. I beg to disabuse this cosy view. RSS may be a great standard that has support across the web, but this may be masking the fact that in most cases RSS just isn't good enough, for these reasons:
  1. For public information, it's far better to use social networking.
  2. For private information, it's insecure.

Lets deal with RSS for public information first. How do end-users consume RSS feeds? Well non-techies probably try clicking on one of those RSS buttons on sites and following one of the plethora of buttons and sign up procedures for RSS reader services that follow, before getting quite confused. Perhaps their browser or mail reader will try to help them keep track of RSS feeds too, but then moving to a different computer will leave them confused all over again. So most people fall at the first hurdle. Even those who choose a great reader have to be pretty disciplined to stay in the habit of following most feeds, and that's because they're usually much too narrow. The typical RSS feeds that universities expose include departmental news stories, custom search results, new books in the library, etc. It looks good, but the results for even the most assiduous RSS consumer is a river of unexciting, unconnected, over-machined news that quickly begins to feel like a millstone around their neck. Much of this information would be better framed as pithy updates to be consumed in a timely way via (shudder!) email, or displayed in context in a web page (gasp!) that is connected to the content.
Perhaps the most intelligent use of RSS for public information is to use it to disseminate and collect must-read articles from quality blogs like this one (!). Meaty articles that you're happy to dip into in a different context, even offline, away from the bustle of your email inbox and your social media streams. This is the podcast model, where the easy collection of free radio or TV programs, say, via your RSS reader (e.g. iTunes) for consumption on your favourite personal device does lead to a great experience. With the advent of the iPad, perhaps we need a new word for RSS feeds focused on quality, iPad friendly, blog or magazine or news or even research articles you can read on the train. A padcast? No thanks. An ePubcast? Yuck. Storycast? Pamphletcast? You get the idea. In any case, the current reality is that even after 10 years of the industry pushing RSS feeds, no blogger creating even the best content would rely on RSS to get their stories out there. Most good blogging sites now allow users to keep updated via good old-fashioned email, because it works.
Many would say that RSS hits its stride when building clever mashups. To be fair, RSS feeds with geolocation data makes for great maps. Yahoo pipes and other engines for chopping, sorting, auto-translating and otherwise crunching feeds can do some wonderful things, clearly potentially useful in some research scenarios. Perhaps. The most common mashup approach however is to populate "channels" of news on otherwise static web pages. You see them everywhere: lists of headlines, text-heavy article snippets, the odd icon. This is fine, but the advertising world knows that very little money is made on sidebar ads that Google and others have made ubiquitous. People gloss over them unless they're very nicely integrated. Now, advertisers have the bucks, and Google has the might, to make sure they only advertise to you - for yes, they know who you are - what they think you want. These ads unleash a world of intelligence on our unsuspecting minds, but if people still ignore all this, what chance have we of encouraging clickthroughs from our dumb RSS channels? No, the advertisers get their spoils out of search requests that return "featured results". It's not rocket science. To be there at the right place at the right time, be there when someone's looking for something. The fact the universities should make much more of their website's search capabilities to disseminate important information is probably the subject of another blog article.
But these days there's something else. Something that leads to much more referral traffic than even search. All the evidence shows that discovery through, you guessed it, social networking is driving users to web content as never before. This makes sense. Where RSS feed readers are only worth bothering about for content with high production values, your Twitter stream or Facebook page is the perfect place to keep up with everything else that's interesting in the world because following actual people is far more interesting than tracking anonymous "machined" RSS feeds. People gossip. They snigger. They post fun stuff alongside making serious points and linking to heavier content. You find the good stuff because you care about what the people you follow say in these networks, and enjoy all the "phatic" stuff that comes along with it. Twitter is particularly good for this, as it's easy to follow (and be followed) without feeling harrassed either way, and all updates have the great strength of being shorter than a text message. Yes, if you want your content to be found, it has to be interesting enough to be shared, and you have to get personal. All bloggers know this. Along with their email subscription buttons, they Twitter like mad, advertising their wares all the while. Guilty as charged.
If RSS is being crowded out in the public arena, what then its use in the private web? After all a university, like any large organisation, has plenty of news to share with its own and friends, but which isn't intended to be completely public. The (theoretical) power of standard RSS feeds comes through their use in mashups by third-party reader applications or websites. To consume a protected RSS feed such apps and sites need a standard way of authenticating the user to access the feed, no matter its source. To date the only way to do this has been to use standard HTTP authentication known as "Basic Auth". If browser pops up its own login prompt before showing a page, rather than redirecting to a new page with a login form rendered in HTML, then its Basic Auth you're seeing. Disappointingly, very few RSS readers and almost no mashup websites support RSS feeds authenticated this way, making such feeds next to useless. When the benefits seem obvious, why so? Well, mashup sites generally want to splurge information to Joe Public for advertising reasons. Given all the other usability hurdles already covered above, for many RSS readers handling authenticated feeds is a step too far. The real problem however is Basic Auth itself. To use it you have to give your third-party RSS client or website your precious university username and password, and that's insecure. To be clear, if a Russian website offers to generate a crazy map of your authenticated (geolocated) RSS feed containing your latest confidential research findings, all in return for just your university username and password - please don't give it to them.
Lately Google, Twitter and Facebook amongst others have developed a way around this, using OAuth instead of Basic Auth to secure personal news feeds. This allows, say, a third-party iPhone Twitter app  to redirect a user back to the Twitter website, where they can login securely and instruct Twitter to trust their iPhone app with your data, whereupon you return to the original site. The end-user experience of this "dance" between websites is just seamless enough, and the advantages are clear. You never handover your login details to the third-party app, and you can revoke the trust that you granted at any time in your Twitter preferences without having to change your password. There are phishing and man-in-the-middle attack nasties to fret about here, and for sure OAuth is not entirely mature yet. But OAuth is non-proprietary, and is becoming a "standard" that many are jumping on because a solution here is sorely needed. I see no reason why eventually an OAuth protected RSS feed from a university shouldn't be readable in a third party app, potentially alongside more social streams, particularly when OAuth 2.0 negates the requirement for data consumer apps to pre-register with data providers. If this were possible then, who knows, perhaps researchers and collaborators could share news securely much more easily; students could "subscribe" to assignment feedback from their VLEs, and keep up with these notices intermingled with their social streams. I'd like to think that many things might be possible in ways that we couldn't do before.
By then however, RSS itself itself may have been superceded with richer feed formats and protocols, such as OAuth protected Activity Streams, that allow apps to do funkier social things with updates in news feeds such as "like" them, or "reshare" them. Yes, the fact is that the social networking world is treading all over this space once again and RSS is becoming just another useful machine-to-machine data format, and one of many at that. For me, the myth that RSS could be a mechanism for freeing information, and ultimately freeing everyday users, by giving them full flexibility to interact with the naked data directly, feels likes it's receding into little more than a techy dream.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Should universities worry about H.264 video patent licensing?

The short answer appears to be: almost certainly no :)

This surprises me. For a long time I've been under the impression that universities encoding free-to-use but non-public content into H.264 would be liable to pay licence fees. Annoyingly small licence fees in most cases, but payable all the same. This doesn't appear to be a serious concern any more.

For those who don't know, H.264, a.k.a. AVC, is the de-facto standard "codec" for compressing video content these days. It is used by iPods, iPhones, YouTube, TV set-top boxes - you name it. It's ultra-scalable, handling mobile phone to near cinema quality HD video without being lossy, and can be encoded and decoded by a plethora of low cost chips. It's also part of the MPEG-4 family of standards, and so non-proprietary. This is in contrast to, say, the ON2 VP6 codec used by Flash video, which is still the best choice for distributing video playable to older computers, and is the default codec you are receiving when playing YouTube videos, for example. Non-proprietary does not mean free however, and use of H.264 is bound by patents and licensing agreements, collected together by the industry in the form of the MPEG LA AVC Licence Agreement. This agreement was updated this February. I've been looking at the new agreement again today and the picture is better than I thought. Here's the key section:
In the case of Internet broadcast (AVC video that is delivered via the Worldwide Internet to an end user for which the End User does not pay remuneration for the right to receive or view, i.e., neither title-by-title nor subscription), there will be no royalty during the first term of the License (ending December 31, 2010) and following term (ending December 31, 2015),
So, free H.264 internet content incurs no royalty, whether it is public or not, until 2015. Nice. After that? The agreement continues thus:
after which the royalty shall be no more than the economic equivalent of royalties payable during the same time for free television. ...  The first term of the License runs through 2010, but the License will be renewable for successive five-year periods. ... Royalty rates applicable to specific license grants or specific licensed products will not increase by more than ten percent (10%) at each renewal. 
So, it could jump to the same as free television rates - which I'll come back to - but even this can't increase by more than 10% at each renewal, so there's no fear of large price hikes in future which was previously a legitimate worry. If they did decide to price internet broadcasting the same way as free television, what's the hit? Here's where admittedly it does get a little more complicated.
where remuneration is from other sources, in the case of free television (television broadcasting which is sent by an over-the-air, satellite and/or cable Transmission, and which is not paid for by an End User), the licensee (broadcaster which is identified as providing free television AVC video) may pay (beginning January 1, 2006) according to one of two royalty options: (i) a one-time payment of $2,500 per AVC  transmission encoder (applies to each AVC encoder which is used by or on behalf of a Licensee in transmitting AVC video to the End User) or (ii) annual fee per Broadcast Market starting at $2,500 per calendar year per Broadcast Markets of at least 100,000 but no more than 499,999 television households, $5,000 per calendar year per Broadcast Market which includes at least 500,000 but no more than 999,999 television households, and $10,000 per calendar year per Broadcast Market which includes 1,000,000 or more television households.
It's a mouthful, but the above gives us the choice of two options, and the second is cheaper as it costs nothing unless you're challenged by someone seriously arguing that your broadcast market is over 100,000 users. If your university is getting those kinds of viewing figures out of your academic content - good luck to you! Even then the liability would only be $2,500 per calendar year, rising by only 10% every five years, which is hardly anything to lie awake at night about.

Yes - celebrations all round - H.264 appears to be free for universities to use. But should universities be archiving precious video content in H.264? This is really a question for library services like the National Archives, to which my university is affiliated, or JISC's digital media service. I have looked, but I have yet to see clear guidance on this. If anyone can provide a definitive answer I would certainly appreciate learning about it. My own view currently is that digital video content should be archived in it's "virgin" or "raw" format if possible, and H.264 at HD ("1020p" or equivalently 10Mbps) and broadband web-friendly (500kbps 700 kbps) bit rates. (Wikipedia puts these bit rates nicely in context.) My view on this may change if WebM takes off. This codec, which is comprised of VP8 video codec from ON2 (which Google bought), Ogg Vorbis audio, and the Matroska container format, is entirely royalty free. It's the new Ogg Theora, if you will. It promises to be almost as good as H.264 performance-wise and with Google's backing, and YouTube's by extension, it's sure to become the standard HTML5 video format of choice in years to come with native browser support. As such WebM should be the perfect choice for playable archive formats, but it's early days as WebM was only announced last month, and so encoders are still very hard to come by Even so, I believe that only the continued success of H.264 in the existing marketplace, and possibly Apple's anticompetitive tactics witholding WebM from iPhones, are likely to hold WebM back. Indeed the next few years could see a pitched battle between Apple the movie mogul promoting H.264, and Google the "we're not evil" hippies promoting WebM. It's yet another place where these titans are currently clashing.

So the bottom line is, universities can generate and distribute H.264 video content that is "free to view or receive" without incurring any royalties at all until 2015, and after then we could be liable to pay swallowable annual fees that may increase no more than with standard inflation, but this is very unlikely. The WebM alternative will probably provide an even better way of distributing totally free HD and web-friendly video in the future. Whichever of these wins out, the good news is that producing free to use video content for the web is only going to get easier.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Fixing academic literature with HTML5 and the semantic web

Academic literature is broken. So says a recent article in The Biochemist - "Calling International Rescue, Knowledge lost in data landslide!". It's both a review and a call to arms, goading the bioscience community into seeing that traditional research publishing is no longer fit for purpose. The problem is the sheer volume of discovery by researchers across the globe leading to a profusion of journals, articles, databases, nomenclature and supporting evidence that is impossible to discover or digest. Knowledge is 'sequestered' in static articles in obscure journals without the data needed to allow verification or re-analysis, so that increasingly 'we don't know what we know'. Precious research funding is then wasted on confusion, endless literature searches and unknowing rediscovery.

The article goes on to suggest that the semantic web offers hints for the future and illustrates this through a collaboration with Portland Press to annotate static PDF articles for a whole Biochemical Journal volume enabling 'live' nomenclature database web searches, integrated data visualisers, end user commenting, etc, all of which becomes available when the arcticle is viewed in a special PDF reader from "Utopia Documents". It acknowledges however that a much wider standardisation effort is needed to establish the domain specific data formats and ontologies that are required to really harness our collective knowledge using the power of the semantic web.

This is an huge, and old, problem. Informatics is an entire field encompassing the semantic web and distributed repositories that I don't profess expertise in. My only thoughts here are twofold:

Firstly, special readers utilising proprietary markup on PDF files will never catch on. If this is to work, I think PDF itself must be superceded as the medium of choice for academic journal articles by HTML. Handing around web pages as documents may not feel right today, but with the addition of embedded fonts in HTML5 (see Scribd's demo of this), better CSS support for printing use, and more browser support for offline use so that your favourite reader app could be web app itself, I believe this is coming. If journal articles worked natively in any browser, so could annotations and mashed services invoked by them, with all the richness that the AJAX web world provides. Research articles would be easier to search for, and more accessible. They could be packaged together wth supporting data, or linked to it in an institutional repository which appropriate release mechanisms. It's the old story - standards, standards, standards - and there's no better information standard globally than HTML itself.

Secondly, I can't help but be dubious about hoping that the semantic web alone will make all this information discoverable and digestible. Just because an article outlining frontier research is joined up to other articles (and visible to clever semantic web queries) through nifty bits of common language, doesn't make the whole a joined up thought. Research, more than anything else, is more complicated than that. What this highlights to me is the increased importance of the well referenced review article. A colleague neatly characterised the difference between blogs and wikis for me recently, which is relevant here. Research letters are like blog posts in that their purpose is analysis, allowing others to criticise their work. Review articles, by contrast, are like wikis in that they focus on synthesis, drawing together multiple elements for a less controversial and more lasting picture of the state of a field. A semantic web of research letters alone can't replace an expert synthesis. It could contribute in serendipitous discovery, though, as the excellent partner article in the same Biochemist issue "Designing for (un)serendipity - computing and chance" discusses, much more is needed than happening on connected research to spark a new thought. As Louis Pasteur asserted "chance favours the prepared mind".

Having said all that, a semantic web of syntheses, review articles that is, with supporting databases where needed, does have a chance of evolving the standards required, assuming publishers and archivists push for their use more widely. Here's hoping we can drive progress in this area to improve the lot of the submerged researcher.

Monday, March 01, 2010


I have to post sometime soon about TWIG - "This week in Google" - which has taken over my life in the last few weeks. This is the most brilliant thing. It's so fantastic that in my head I speak with an enthused Californian New York accent now. Its a podcast - you can get it here - I have to say you should simply download all the episodes and listen to them right through, one by one, starting today. I have learned more in the last few weeks about the social web than I have scuttling around the web - which is what "surfing" actually feels like: no sun and swell, just eavesdropping at a party where everyone appears to have left already - after years of trying to stay in touch. It's a blast. What can I say. Awesome.

But here's the thing. Today I don't want to talk about TWIG because there's too much to say about Google Buzz. Oh my word. The world has cottoned on to Buzz in a big way since it launched a few weeks back, but my angle - naturally - is the Higher Ed world. So lets be honest, this world is often a place where ivory tower researchers do their stuff in private by leafing through tomes without any internet fuss upsetting the pace of their own field. I accept that. Using Buzz, or something like it, we aren't going to change everyone's world. I'm not even saying that amongst those who participate socially on the web, that 2010 will be the year of Buzz, like 2009 was the year of Twitter; 2008 was Facebook; 2007 was YouTube, etc etc. But, to me, it's the future. Buzz is the new Twitter and whilst it's different and it's Google-ised and will feel foreign and complex to the loyal Twitterers out there - of which I'm one - I believe it will come to be the place for open, and indeed closed, discussions on everything. And that matters most to, guess whom, researchers. That fascinating tribe - simultaneously the most vocal, reserved, interesting and anal anthropological grouping out there - researchers more than anyone need new ways of handling voluminous group discussions and quick dissemination that can really reach out to the world. Welcome to Buzz.

Actually let's not make Buzz the new saviour, because actually it's the front runner in a movement. This is typical Google. At the end of "The Incredibles" a mole appears screaming "I am 'The Underminer'! I may be beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!" For Facebook and now Twitter - that's Google. They take a industry which is operating well in a silo and open it up so everyone can play, making sure that they're the best at it. As they say on TWIG, Google says "We're your friend! We're not evil. Anyone can do what we do. We're open. We don't hold on to your data. We just want people to use the internet full stop because we're good at webapps and eventually you'll use something - a search, or email, or apps, or maps, or something - where we can make a profit by tracking your behaviour and selling ads. No need to take market share, growing the user base by making the internet truly pervasive is all Google needs. It's good business." So, Buzz is opening up the Twitterverse which has taken the world by storm.

Now I could go into why Twitter has succeeded, but there's a great post by Kevin Marks covering that. Suffice to say it's the first way I've ever seen of simply keeping up with diverse people and streams of information from just about everywhere. It just works. For years we've struggled with email and email lists, even RSS. You can get clever with all of these, but pretty soon it feels like a millstone around your neck. By contrast, login to Twitter and you see nice updates from people you recognise, and the general hubbub that you hear from colleagues and acquaintances is downright comforting. They're around. I know they're out there. And in Twitter I don't need to suffer the scores they got on some stupid quiz like "Katie is 87% oyster - what mollusc are you?" like you constantly get on Facebook. It's neat, simple and quick. You can get it on your mobile device. It's wonderful. But there's more. That's content comsumpton, what about content creation? I don't have much to say, but others out there are incredibly interesting, and they can throw there ideas out there where all can find them, and still only care about  responses from those they follow and recognise themselves. It's like being in the public gallery of a debate amongst experts - and that's what makes Twitter the most interesting place in the web. Smart people use it - and by god our researchers are smart, and so they should be using it too so we can all learn from them. Add to this the ease of scrolling through hundreds of updates every day, contextualised with photos against every update, and this is a manageable way of keeping yourself up to date. I've never felt so in touch with what's going on the world of the social web at least. I wouldn't say I'm in touch with my nearest and dearest buddies this way. Actually I'm less so because my gaze is fixed on my mobile device all day! And this is a downside. But maybe I can save time overall and spend real quality time with my loved ones as a result, who knows.

So we agree Twitter is fantastic. Here's the deal. It's closed stupid. On Twitter I am @apbleonard. That won't scale. No other apbleonard out there can use that. I'll bet @john and @fred and @obama feel a bit silly now with the millions of tweets they get mis-sent every day. So how is Buzz any different? As one of the blogs I mentioned in my last post has it, "take a look at the Buzz API". Webfinger anyone? Buzz recognises that. Activity streams? Pubsubhubbub? Buzz will soon be able to use these to send updates to your favourite Twitter app on your phone in real time. And there's more. With Buzz you get conversations. Now I liked the minimalist conversation structure in Twitter - there is no threads, just updates - but that's for geeks and it takes a while for newbies to get used to. There's stuff they need to fix with this, but it's only a matter of time. Also, and this blew me away, there's maps. I don't know when I'll actually find this useful, but it's beautiful. What's been a genuine dream of mine for sometime is already sort of here. Take a look at the screen shot taken from my iPod Touch this morning. People all over London are buzzing and you can find it simply by searching location. Of course you can use your mobile device to find buzzes near where you are.

On the TWIG episode on Buzz that I heard this morning there's a great discussion on the use of open standards in Buzz. In it Kevin Marks says that the Openmicroblogging people like Laconica and are moving over to these new standards as their way forward, the idea being that people running a Laconica server can freely plug into discussions carried out using Google Buzz. This is the key. Let us dream for a second. Imagine if York ran it's own "Buzz" service by running an open source server provided by on of these great projects. (Again, I'm not sure if this is the right name for it, and anything that's nameless loses a lot, so lets sort that out quickly - OpenBuzz anyone?) Then a researcher, Fred, could go to their university profile page, and add in their "What are you thinking?" box, an update from That update could be pushed out to all his followers all over the web in seconds, including who uses Google Buzz as their favourite client, and who happens to use their favourite iPhone or Android app for Twitter, Facebook and Buzz updates in one place. If the update were public people who happened on it could start following him in their profile, which could be a Google profile depending on which identity and apps they preferred to use, or something else. Alternatively Fred could go to the VLE, or our internal Community system, and post an update in one of the course or project or football community spaces there, and have that update show up immediately in the "Buzz" inboxes of those people who are signed up in those spaces only - privately. Isn't this the  perfect way to pick up all your updates? Now imagine Fred is at his office at York campus. He picks up his mobile and opens his local buzz map. He notices lots of buzzing happening in a lecture theatre or exhibition space or college bar, and heads on over. This is the beginning of a whole new world and we're seeing it materialise before our very eyes.

Yes it's hyperbole, and I'm a fanboy, but I'm excited. I think this could revolutionise research as much as email did. This is what Twitter has promised almost by accident. If you don't believe me take a look at (Yep - another TWIG find.) This is a company designed to bring together experts who can advise governments - in real-time - before taking decisions that affect all of us. Buzz has huge implications for news media of course, which is in crisis - see New York Times circulation drops below 1 million, Indy bought for a pound by an ex KGB man, etc. TWIG is big on that area too, but that's another story. I really think Buzz will move the world of online updating forward for the better. It may be unrecognisable before it becomes mainstream, but I think it has far more potential to overturn email than say Wave does, and it has the promise to open all the worlds thoughts and discussions and bring them together in a way that actually works, and that crucially isn't owned or controlled by Google, but where they sure can give us the juice when we feel like using their enticingly tasty services. Here's hoping.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Webfinger: your real web address

[Update: This is one of those posts that was written quickly to try and capture an idea spinning in the brain before it got dizzy. As a result, it makes little sense unless you know about stuff like Shibboleth and OAuth, but if that's your bag, read on. I already have a (supposedly) more readable half-written post about why something like this was sorely needed, but now its here, lets get right to it.]

The release of Google Buzz has drawn attention to Webfinger, which appears to provide something that I've been looking for for quite some time. Despite its terrible name, my "webfinger ID" could replace my email address as the universally recognised way by which I identify myself on the web, and others out there refer to me.

Webfinger is dead simple. Really. (I think.) All it's about is a way of publishing profile information about you on the web in a way that easily discoverable. To be exact, any application presented with the webinger ID "" can query standard pages on (not quite, but almost) and find out stuff about Fred - for example:
  • their Jabber ID
  • their OpenID - no more typing in URLs
  • their Shibboleth IDP - no more WAYF problems
  • their photo, bio and any other public profile information they wished to publish. 
That means one day, I should be able to type my webfinger ID into a cloud service - or into another university's research system - and it could immediately redirect me to my organisation's own single-sign-on login screen where I can enter a different username password for authentication there, and get back a ticket - using OAuth - to use the service. Even better, if I wanted to share my research with someone from a U.S. university, I could type in their webfinger ID (usually their email address), and immediately get to see their photo to be sure that I got the right person. Better still, a stream of updates from your contacts in your favourite microblogging application could show avatars and linked profile information all derived from webfinger.

Webfinger is likely to succeed for three reasons:
  1. It's a solution that's sorely needed. People currently identify themselves by email address, but might use something different for their chat/Jabber id even on the same domain. That's bad. Secondly publishing profile data is pretty key to collaboration, and if there's a standard way to do it, so much the better. 
  2. It uses an email style ID. Webfinger IDs are just of the form "name@domain". That reads naturally, and is a lot easier to read than an OpenID, that's for sure. 
  3. It's federated. Domains control publishing of profile data themselves. This is not like Facebook or Twitter or Google profile or any other the others. 
There are potential pitfalls. Webfinger makes profile data mining trivial, which could inhibit uptake, particularly amongst institutions that dislike opening their personal data without a fight. Secondly there may be confusion where emailing a webfinger ID that may not be a true email address may cause problems. Most importantly the metadata that is published via webfinger is yet to be specified fully, and until it is, applications won't know quite how to find someone's avatar, for example. Actually the killer could be that name. It's just unappealing. "Oh, here, have my webfinger address..." or worse "I'll webfinger you..." Uh uh. Not cool. This needs a serious makeover as its not a geeky backend thing, it should be your real web address.

Ok, so I may be pushing the idea further than it can support currently, but I hope you get the idea that this could be the rosetta stone we've been looking for - allowing federated collaboration systems to talk to each other and exchange people information simply and openly. I wonder how long it will be before I give out my first webfinger address?