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March 13, 2010

Making web sites

Writing about web page

So I decided I wanted to make a simple web site for my band, The Heels. ( if you’re interested) Along the way I discovered two or maybe three things:-

  1. If you’re used to working with a content management system, it’s an unpleasant slap in the face to have to go back to using CSS & HTML for layout. It’s easy to kid yourself that if you know enough HTML to do simple formatted text, images and tables, that you know enough to do layout but that’s tragically untrue.
  2. Equally, though, for a web site as small as the one I made, it’s not worth the effort of trying to select, install, and learn how to drive a content management system of any sort. It would have taken significantly longer to get any CMS working than it did to write a dozen or so pages by hand.
  3. One thing that’s annoying to have to do by hand is a change to every page; often a CMS saves you from this. But if you pack as much as you can into common CSS files, that fixes the problem from one side, and if you have a text editor which can search and replace across many files and folders, that fixes it from the other.

February 09, 2009

Mobile phone UIs are rubbish

A colleague just contacted me to ask “How do I see more of the emails in my in-box on my phone?”. The answer? Do this:-

Mail -> Options -> Settings -> Email -> Mail for Exchange -> Options -> Edit Profile -> Email -> Sync messages back

and then change that value to be something bigger. And that’s with a UI which is supposed to be good (Nokia S60), for heaven’s sake. It’s no wonder Apple cleaned up with the iPhone when this is the state of the competition.

February 02, 2009

Work resolutions 2009

Follow-up to Work resolutions 2008 from Autology: John Dale's blog

Stupidly late, here’s my annual follow-up to my work predictions from Jan 2008, and going further back, 2007, 2006 and 2005.

A year ago, in January 2008, I predicted that we would:-

  • Do more to integrate with email.
  • Develop fewer new applications, looking instead to extend our existing tools and make them more task based.
  • Work on desktop synchronisation tools.

I’d give myself a solid two out of three. We didn’t do anything on email integration, and while I think it’s still a good idea in principle, we haven’t really found a specific example of where we could introduce it as a feature.

We certainly developed fewer new applications; none, to be precise (unless I’m forgetting something), though we substantially reworked some applications such as Search and Files.Warwick. We continue to think about the task-based approach to using our tools, especially in the context of teaching and learning, and module web spaces. And we introduced two (nearly three) desktop tools; a Files.Warwick sync tool, a video converter, and, soon, drive letter mapping into Files.Warwick so you can treat your Files.Warwick space like any other Windows Explorer or Mac Finder location, and open, save, copy and move files into and out of it.

For 2009, I’m broadening my predictions out. I predict that:-

  • Discoverability will be important; there are things you can do with our tools which are great if you know about them, but there’s nothing on our toolbars or in our UI which tells you that these features exist, or what they do, or why they might be useful. We need to work more on exposing things that people can do with our systems, and I think this applies to lots of systems and at lots of levels – in the UI, in the documentation, through the helpdesk, through our training and support, through our marketing.
  • 2009 will be the first year in which Warwick out-sources a major IT application.
  • And also the year in which the question of our VLE provision through SiteBuilder and other tools, and its strengths and weaknesses against other VLE systems, comes to the fore.

And thanks to my tardiness, there’s now only eleven months to see whether I’m right or not.

December 04, 2008

Tablet talk

My recipe for the perfect tablet computer: take the nine or ten inch, 1024×600 screen that you generally see on netbooks these days, make it into a touch-screen, then glue the innards of an iPod Touch to the back of it. That’s it. The iPhone / iPod Touch UI is so incomparably good compared with any other touch-screen device – Tablet PC, UMPC, Windows Mobile device, Palm OS – that, for me, at least, a somewhat scaled-up version would hit the perfect sweet spot of being exactly what I need to cart around with me all day at work, and to slump on the sofa with at night. It’d be big enough to comfortably read the PDF and Word documents that make up the agendas and reports that fill my working day, and high enough resolution to make reading almost any web site easy, without requiring so much zooming and/or rotating to get the text to a workable size.

For bonus points:-

  1. Include some sort of note-taking app which syncs between the desktop, the device and the web. But if Apple don’t want to include this, it wouldn’t matter because Evernote already ticks this box, with desktop, web and iPhone clients available. And on a 1024×600 screen, the virtual keyboard is going to be big enough for even the clumsiest and least skilled user (that’s me) to type short notes and emails without difficulty.
  2. Give me an easy way to transfer PDF and other document files to and from the device without needing to email them to myself or use a third party app such as File Magnet or AirShare. But I could live without this.
  3. Include a SIM card socket so I can get at my stuff when I’m out of wifi coverage. Again, useful from time to time, but I’d buy with or without this built in.

It’s hard to find a tablet device that’s larger than a PDA which has been hugely successful, partly at least because the user experience always falters when the underlying OS – Windows, mostly – bleeds through the touch layer. But a device built on Mobile OS X wouldn’t have that problem, and I’d buy one in a heartbeat. Go on, Apple; build one for me.

December 03, 2008

Amazon MP3 store comes to the UK

Follow-up to Amazon MP3 downloads from Autology: John Dale's blog

In September ‘07, I wrote about the US Amazon MP3 store, and noted that it was – for a very short time, as it turned out – available to UK customers.

Now there’s a UK Amazon MP3 store and it looks very promising; millions of tracks, high bit-rate MP3 files with no DRM, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, very reasonable prices, which don’t induce the usual US-UK comparison rage. The new Take That album, for example, is £3, and a random browsing of tracks suggests that a pretty substantial proportion of them come in at 59p, and the majority of the rest at 69p.

Kudos to Amazon: this looks like the best place for UK buyers to shop for legal, unprotected music, beating the iTunes store and other, less high profile competitors such as 7Digital (who are charging £5 for the Take That album, incidentally) by delivering the usual Amazon one-two punch of ease of use (I already have an account there, and my debit and credit cards are already set up ready for me to buy), a huge product range, and competitive pricing.

October 28, 2008

Finally, a prediction comes true

Writing about web page

I’m constantly disappointed by the way in which exciting predictions about the future fail to come true. I don’t fly to work with a jet pack, or holiday on the moon, and although I get many, many adverts for pills of one sort or another in my in-box, I don’t believe that there are really IQ-boosting, anti-aging, hair restoring, cancer curing tablets (not all in the same pill necessarily) available yet.

But one prediction which has been floating around for a while genuinely did come true today. It’s the one about personalised newspapers being delivered to your portable electronic reader. The prediction, which I’ve come across literally more than once, is that having a printed newspaper containing stuff you may or may not want to read delivered to you every morning is inefficient and wasteful. Better to define your preferences for the type of news you’re interested in and/or the columnists you like to read (that is, whose biases accord agreeably with your own) and then have a personalised, digital paper sent to you in the morning, to read on your Read-o-tron on the train (monorail) to work.

And now, the combination of the NetNewsWire RSS reader on my iPod Touch and the Guardian’s recent announcement that their RSS feeds now contain the full text of articles (as reported by Chris Doidge earlier today) means that this is exactly what I have. I’ve chosen RSS feeds for top stories, tech, music and HE, and every morning my iPod wakes itself up and downloads all those articles to its memory using my home wifi. Then at convenient moments in the day – and I don’t need to be connected, since the articles are all cached – I can read whatever catches my eye. No paper, complete personalisation. Finally, the future!

September 05, 2008

Flashpaper discontinued

I was interested to read this article about the fact that Adobe are discontinuing development of their Flashpaper product, and the problems that this is going to cause for other companies which use Flashpaper as part of their own product or service.

In one sense, of course, you could argue that companies who failed to read the writing on the wall when Adobe acquired Macromedia deserve everything they get for failing to spot the obvious problem with one company now owning both Acrobat and Flashpaper. The only real surprise is that it’s taken this long. But even so, it’s an interesting and somewhat salutatory lesson about picking the technologies that you choose to rely on for your own products or services carefully; what if Moxiecode decide one day that they don’t want to maintain or develop tinyMCE, our WYSIWYG editor, any more?

The other thing that puzzles me slightly is that I thought I remembered from the Flash conference I went to last year, that Adobe have a slightly evolved version of Flashpaper baked into their file sharing application, the name of which I’ve now forgotten. But the idea was that whatever sort of file you uploaded to their site, you’d be able to get a Flash-based preview of its contents, and that preview looked very much like Flashpaper. Perhaps it was always a separate product; it would seem particularly mean to discontinue development of the product for your customers, whilst continuing to develop it internally to use in your own products. Adobe wouldn’t do that, surely?

August 28, 2008

Second–hand iPhones?

I’ve been trying out a few different phones recently, partly to try and figure out what kind of phone would be the best bet to offer people at Warwick who want mobile email and calendars. More on that topic another day, but what it’s left me feeling for myself personally is that the phone that would suit me best is an Apple iPhone.

Unfortunately for me, though, I’m also mean, and reluctant to shell out the thousand pounds-plus that an O2 contract would cost me. It would also be rather inefficient, because apart from my family, almost all my calls, texts and data usage are work related, so it makes sense for my phone to be a work phone, and for work to foot most of the bill, and for me to be on the same network as all my work colleagues. It also lets me take advantage of the fact that Warwick’s deal with Vodafone makes all my calls to any Vodafone number at all, not just to Warwick people, free.

But there’s the snag: Warwick’s network carrier is Vodafone, and you can’t buy an iPhone which will work on Voda. Or at least, not a brand new one. But what about a second-hand v1 iPhone? The only two significant hardware additions to the v2 iPhone were GPS, which I’m indifferent to, and 3G, which I concede is useful, but I consume data over the cellular network (as opposed to wifi) very infrequently – once or twice a month, perhaps – and when I do, it’s mostly email, which is not very data intensive. So maybe 3G wouldn’t matter that much to me. Everything else was a software change which can be pushed on to v1 phones just as well as v2 ones.

So can you get v1 iPhones which are SIM unlocked? There’s a place in the US which has them for about £260 which seems reasonable (apart from UK Customs, perhaps), though they don’t say explicitly whether the phone is SIM-unlocked or not. Anyone know any other good sources (within the EU, ideally) of v1 unlocked iPhones?

May 14, 2008

Online maps feature idea

Writing about web page

A few weeks ago, Steve noted that the Google imagery for these parts had been updated, as has the Microsoft Live Maps imagery. This gave me an idea: if I were Google or Microsoft, I’d retain the older data, and add a new feature to their mapping services; look back in time. So for any given view of a town or city, you’d be able to click a rewind button and see as many earlier versions of the same view as the provider has got stored. It’d be expensive on disk space, of course, but disk space is getting cheaper faster than planes are flying around taking photos.

In the short-term, this would only be mildly interesting, allowing you to see the buildings and other changes that have arisen in the last year or so. But if you take a longer view, and think about collecting the imagery for decades, it would be fascinating. There’s an aerial photo of the Warwick campus in Scarman House taken in 1990 (it’s on the first floor at the start of the walkway to the bedrooms if you happen to be passing). The difference between that photo and today’s campus is remarkable, and collecting the data to do similar comparisons for any big conurbation in another ten or twenty years would be a hugely valuable and civically-minded thing to do. I’ll even waive my royalties on the idea.

February 12, 2008

DVR choices

In October 2006 I wrote about trying to find a replacement for my Tivo which bit the dust after five years of faithful service. The whole DVR (Digital Video Recorder) category has come on a fair way since then, with hard disk based video recorders or PC-based media centres being fairly common-place now.

So I thought I’d write again about the things I’d like in a DVR / media centre, and my understanding of what the options are. In Oct 06, I said I wanted:-

  1. Season passes (the ability to record all episodes of a show without having to know when they’re on)
  2. No monthly subscription, ruling out a Sky Plus box for that reason
  3. A silent or near-silent box.

Since then, I’ve come up with two or three more features which I think are important:-

  1. The ability to copy video files on to the device and play back a wide range of formats. Could be video of the kids playing in the garden, could be a show you forgot to record and a friend gives you a file on a memory stick. Whichever, it’s become clear to me that only being able to play back content which was originally recorded on the device is a bit limiting.
  2. There’s something to be said for having everything in one box – a video recorder, a DVD player, a playback device for other videos. There’s only one UI, one remote, one input on the TV where everything lives. It’s almost certainly cheaper to buy three boxes; a cheap Freeview DVR, a cheap DVD player, and a cheap media streamer, but it’s a less elegant solution.
  3. As my children get older and we all have things we want to watch, I grow more attracted to the idea of having one big hard disk of content somewhere with the ability to call up any chunk of it on any TV in the house. You could buy two or three Freeview recorders for the price of a PC-based server-and-clients system, but you’d either have to go round them all telling each of them to record everything, or accept that they’d all have different content on them. Not as neat.

So what are the options now? Sadly Tivo still aren’t selling new hardware in the UK, so despite having the best UI by a margin, it’s not really a credible choice right now; having dual freeview tuners is so much better than having to control a separate set-top box and being restricted to a single recording at a time that a Tivo no longer looks competitive. There was an announcement a month or so ago that the Tivo software has been licenced to run on PCs, so if and when that appears it might be worth a look – but it would have to support dual freeview tuners and allow no-subscription-cost access to the Tivo guide data. We’ll see.

What else? The cheapest way in is still to buy a freeview DVR such as a Humax 9200 or a Topfield TF5800PVRt. They’re a couple of hundred quid, and they’re appliances rather than PCs, so they Just Work out of the box. The Humax 9200 recently had a firmware upgrade to allow it to do season passes, and these work pretty well, so it now does just about everything my original wishlist had (it’s a little noisy and the season passes aren’t perfect because not every channel provider publishes the required metadata to support them, though most do). So it’s only my latter-day wish for an all-in-one box that can play back video from other sources that stops it being perfect. I gather you can make the Topfield do that sort of thing by adding third party software to it, but I’m not hugely keen to get into that kind of fiddling.

There’s a device called the Babel TV recorder which looks interesting; it’s a pre-built Linux box with PVR software, dual tuners, DVD playback and (I presume) playback for other video files. It’s £300 which is a bit more than a Humax, but might be worth it for the extra functionality. The only problem is, since being announced last October, I haven’t seen a single review of it anywhere which makes me a little bit suspicious; their web site suggests that you can buy one right now, so why hasn’t anyone anywhere written anything about it after the initial flurry of interest when it was first announced?

Other choices revolve around putting a PC or a Mac under the TV. I’ve tried this with a Windows Media Centre box and it works pretty well, ticking my boxes for dual freeview, DVD playback, video file playback, etc. The problems are that it’s a relatively expensive option – PCs are cheap, but PCs which will fit under the TV and run near-silently are not. You’re more likely to spend £500-£1000 than £199 if you go this way. And while it does season passes and has a free and relatively data-rich EPG, it’s apparently incapable of spotting when there are repeat showings of the same episode of a show, choosing instead to record them all, even though the show name, episode name and episode description are identical. Tivo never had that problem. Another snag is that since it’s Windows underneath, it’s relatively fragile, and is likely to lock up every now and again, or present you with an inexplicable error message. If you try to install software on it, there may be unwanted side effects; when I tried to install a DivX codec to give me thumbnails for DivX files, I broke my Freeview tuner drivers for reasons I don’t pretend to understand.

There are other DVR software choices if you have a suitable PC, too; I looked briefly at Sage TV which is Java software and thus runs on a PC or a Mac or a Linux box. I quite liked it, but the fiddling around to get it set up factor was quite high; it wasn’t a very appliance-like experience. If you buy a PC with Windows Media Center (or Vista Home Premium, now, I guess) on it, then it is at least a fairly appliance-like experience, with the software starting up on first boot and asking you a series of questions which you can answer with the remote control. Sage TV, by contrast, required me to download it, unzip it, run a setup program and then do quite a lot of fiddling before I had something working well enough to sit on the sofa and play with. Sage do make cheap HD extender boxes, though, which is interesting.

Last time I wrote about this I also mentioned the possibility of using a Mac for the purpose. The Apple TV box won’t do on its own because it can’t record TV, only play back content acquired elsewhere. Same deal with Apple’s Front Row software – no recording. And when I looked around back in ‘06, I couldn’t find any Mac software which would do season passes. Now there are at least two choices; the afore-mentioned Sage TV, or possibly Elgato Eye TV v3 which looks very Mac-like, and might integrate quite well with Apple TV boxes as extenders. But I’m dubious about the need to combine a Mac with third party software and third party hardware (for the tuners and possibly the remote control) and have it all Just Work. I might at some stage buy the software and a USB tuner and try it on a MacBook just to see how it performs, though.

So there is still no perfect solution. On a tight budget, I’d buy a Humax and live without the fancy stuff. It’s a great PVR, it does season passes, and it works. All the time. If I had money to burn, I’d buy a silent PC (probably one of these ) and run Windows Media Centre, accepting its quirks with season passes and trying as hard as possible to treat it as if it were an appliance and not installing anything on it that isn’t essential for its running. I think there is still a gap in the market for something which is more than a Humax/Topfield but less than a fuill-on Windows or Mac computer; the gap which the Babel TV might fill if it really exists, I suppose.

February 07, 2008

Google Spreadsheet forms

Writing about web page

Here’s a clever idea: Google have extended their online spreadsheet application in an ingenious way: they’ve made it possible for spreadsheet authors to expose a form view of their spreadsheet. So if you have a spreadsheet to which you’d like lots of people to contribute a small snippet of data, instead of giving them all edit rights to the spreadsheet, you can create a form view and allow people to add their data to your spreadsheet just using the form. From the Google Blog

Create a form in a Google Docs spreadsheet and send it out to anyone with an email address. They won’t need to sign in, and they can respond directly from the email message or from an automatically generated web page. Creating the form is easy: start with a spreadsheet to get the form, or start by creating the form and you’ll get the spreadsheet automatically. Responses are automatically added to your spreadsheet. You can even keep a closer eye on them by adding the Google Docs forms gadget to your iGoogle home page.

If you have Firefox and you keep the underlying spreadsheet open in the browser, you can see it update live as people contribute data to it using your form.

This strikes me as a fantastically clever way to extend Google Docs; at a stroke, they’ve transformed the spreadsheets module from a tool which is essentially a simplified online version of Excel into a completely new tool which can do things like surveys, questionnaires and so on which desktop spreadsheets could never be used for. And rather than introduce a completely new application (“Google Surveys”), they’ve extended an existing application in a way which is intuitive and natural, making it easy for people to use a tool they’re already familiar with to do cool new stuff, instead of having to adopt and learn a new tool and ending up with yet another silo of data. Brilliant.

January 03, 2008

Work resolutions 2008

Follow-up to More work resolutions from Autology: John Dale's blog

For three years now (2005, 2006, 2007) I’ve written a little bit about what kind of work and process I predict for the coming year. Last year, my predictions were relatively modest; I predicted that we might do more stuff outside of Java – perhaps Flash, perhaps Ruby. This has turned out to be right on a small scale; we use Flash for video and audio playback, and soon, recording, and we use pre-bought Flash widgets for tasks such as slideshows, charting, and so on. Steve Carpenter has been seconded to the web team for a while to help integrate some Flash technology into our Java applications. So I’d say that prediction was broadly right. We’ve also done small bits and pieces in Ruby, but we’re still debating whether to take the plunge with a bigger application in 2008.

So what else might we be doing or trying in 2008? My predictions:-

  • I’m increasingly interested in the question of finding ways to integrate with non-web applications that people use a lot. In particular, I’m thinking about email. Many people run their whole work life through their email application, and I wonder if we could do more to take advantage of that. Right now, we send quite a lot of emails to people from our applications – this SiteBuilder page has changed, that blog entry has a comment, this forum has a new message – but we don’t do very much in terms of letting people email to our applications. Given that people are generally very comfortable with email, might it be useful to let people create a blog entry, or modify a SiteBuilder page, or do other tasks, by sending email messages? Maybe.
  • We have two challenges which are to some extent dichotomous; firstly, we need to be careful about adding too many new applications to the set we currently offer. We run the risk that we make it hard for people to know what to choose when they want to do something on the web; a SiteBuilder page? a blog? a forum? a Files.Warwick space? If we added a stand-alone wiki application, say, or a document management application, we would make the challenge of deciding which platform to use even greater. But then the second challenge is that as we expand the range of features which SiteBuilder, in particular, offers, it starts to take on Microsoft Office-like levels of functional richness, and this can make it intimidating to get started with, and hard for even regular users to discover whether or how SiteBuilder could help with a particular task. I predict, therefore, that in 2008 we’ll look for ways to (a) extend our existing tools to do new things, rather than adding new platforms, and (b) we’ll look for ways to try and guide people as to how to do the tasks they’re interested in using our tools, as well as showing them the mechanics of how to “drive” the tools.
  • One particular area where I think we could do something which would help people a lot without increasing the number or complexity of our applications is that of desktop synchronisation. People spend a significant proportion of their time in SiteBuilder and Files.Warwick uploading and downloading files. If you want to edit a Word document that’s on your web site, then you have to save the file to your local hard disk if you don’t already have it there, open it, edit it, save it, then re-upload it. As much as we might want to persuade people that they could avoid this tedious process by abandoning their Word documents and just editing web pages directly, we have to accept that people are comfortable using Office and other desktop applications, and they don’t want to give them up. So, as with email in my first bullet point, perhaps we can find ways to fit better with the tools and ways of working that people already use and like, by making it quick and easy to get files created or edited on the desktop into (and out of) our systems.

Back in January ‘09 to see if I’m right.

October 31, 2007

What's a document management system?

An idea which keeps popping up when I talk to my colleagues both within ITS and also within academic and administrative departments is that lots of people want a Document Management System (DMS for short from now on) to support their work. So I’ve agreed to try and pull together some kind of summary about what it is that people actually mean when they say DMS – do they all mean the same thing? – and thus what kind of system we might be looking for.

As luck would have it, I know nothing about what a DMS is or does, nor am I very aware of what products there are in this space. This is either a gross disadvantage or a refreshing lack of preconceptions allowing for open-minded consideration of the issues. However, some of the problem domains are pretty easy to understand: archiving of documents we need to keep around for legal or business reasons; users who want to work together on authoring documents; users who want a record of the history of a document. So my discussions and reading so far lead me to believe that a DMS might encompass some, all, none or fewer of the following:-

Document creation and editing

A DMS should support the creation and editing of documents using the same desktop applications which people already use. So you should be able to create and edit your Word documents, your Photoshop images, your Autocad drawings, etc. just as you do at the moment, but storing them in the DMS instead of on your local hard drive or a networked hard drive. An implication of this is that there would have to be some way to connect to the DMS directly from your desktop; it would add too much friction if you had to use a web app to download the document, edit it, save it to your hard disk, then re-upload it. You’d need to be able to open the document directly from the DMS. This would suggest that you’d need SMB or CIFS or webDAV and possibly sFTP support, especially if access in this way was also supposed to work off-campus (for when you’re at home, or when you’re collaborating with someone at another university) as well as on.

And in order to properly support editing in this way, you’d also need to be able to lock documents for editing so that while I’m editing it, you can’t. And you might want different sorts of locks; a lock which says “I have this document open for editing right now” is one sort, but you might also want to be able to say “I’m going to be working on this document, on and off, for the next week. Nobody else should be able to change it until a pre-defined time comes around, or until I explicitly signal that I’m done with it.” And implicit in this idea is the idea that you should be able to set permissions on your files and folders to control who can see them, edit them, comment on them, allow others to edit them, etc.

Another feature you’d want over and above what you get from a normal file system is version history. As changes are made to a document in the DMS, metadata about the changes should be stored so that it’s possible to see a history showing who changed the document and when, and you might also want to store all the previous versions of the document if you had disk space to burn.

Archiving and lifecycle management

Once you’re done editing your document, a feature which several people have mentioned is the ability to archive it – a place to store your documents which is secure and stable and allows for long-term storage of a “frozen” unchangeable version of a document. There are lots of documents which make the transition into this state – committee agendas, minutes and papers, annual reports, blueprints, etc. There’s also an interesting question about the lifecycle of archived documents: some documents, notably those which contain personal data, may not be stored for longer than is required to perform the work of the institution. So documents like that may have archiving rules such as “Keep for five years, then delete”. Others may be “Keep indefinitely” – but that raises challenges of its own, since it implies that your storage requirements for your DMS are going to rise every year. And how long is it reasonable to assume that “indefinitely” means? Our Estates office have paper documents going back forty years. Is it reasonable to try and design a DMS to store documents for that kind of period? What’s the lifespan of a given document format (eg. Word or Autocad)? Five years? Ten?

Sharing, publishing and retrieval

Once you’ve put a document into your DMS, you’re likely to want to share it with some people, and you need to be able to find it again later. So you need the same kind of permissions system that you need for editing purposes, but for viewing purposes. And, equally importantly, you need to be able to find your document, and possibly you need other people to be able to find it too. Web sites tend to allow browsing through a hierarchical structure, but a DMS may or may not work in that way, so good indexing, searching and metadata become important. The metadata is particularly relevant because not every file type contains content which can be indexed and searched; if the file I’ve uploaded is an image, then it’s effectively unsearchable unless I also supply a description or some keywords alongside it. (This is particularly important if what you plan to do is scan lots of paper documents and add them to your DMS; unless you intend to do OCR – a slow and expensive proposition – then what you’ll have is effectively just an image, so it’ll only be discoverable if its metadata is good enough.)

Collaborative working

An interesting extra wrinkle which some people have mentioned is that once you’ve got the ability to share documents and edit them collaboratively, then you might want other tools to help your collaboration too. So if you and I are working on a research paper, or a design for a new Library, then as well as the documents we’re creating, perhaps we’d also like to-do lists for the participants; maybe a calendar to show due dates, or gantt charts, or ways of leaving message for each other like a mini discussion forum. By this point, I think, you’ve moved beyond pure DMS into a different space. But I can see how, in peoples’ minds, the two spaces might be logically linked, and if you’re doing one, you might well want to do the other around it.

Some things which I think are probably out of scope for our purposes are:-

  1. Real-time collaborative editing; two or more people working on a document at the same time, able to see each others’ changes live on their respective screens. GoogleDocs lets you do this for word processed documents and spreadsheets, but short of building our own web apps to do the same, I don’t think this is something you could easily get from a DMS; it would need your editing applications – your word processor, your spreadsheet tool, etc. – to support this kind of editing explicitly, and I don’t think many, if any of them, do. Users who want this feature should probably be directed towards GoogleDocs or Zoho or whatever.
  2. Workflow. Some papers I’ve read have suggested that a DMS could be the tool by which you define and enforce your workflow for certain types of document. So if I create an invoice within the DMS, the system knows that because it’s an invoice, and it’s for more than £5K, it should go first to my head of department for approval, and then to the finance office for processing, and a record should be created in SAP, and so on, and so on. I can see how this could be useful, but I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of implementing this in our very diverse and decentralised environment. So perhaps workflow support is out of scope.
  3. Document scanning. At least some of the people who want a DMS want to scan lots of paper documents and put them into it. My presumption at the moment is that the scanning and possible OCR work would be a separate project to the creation of a DMS, and the DMS engine wouldn’t particularly distinguish, or have additional support for, scanned documents as opposed to documents which were fully digital.
  4. Records management. I’m not as sure about this as I am about the other exclusions, but it seems to me that records management, where you have a set of documents which are all in the same, highly structured format like, er, records (in a database), is a niche of its own within document management, and the general purpose nature of a system which allows you to edit and store any kind of file may not be sufficient for more highly structured data.

Phew. So, one of the first questions which occurs to me is, are all these activities really the same in the sense that a single application could or should support them? Or is long-term archiving conceptually and technically different from shared editing? I guess that’s something which might become clearer once we start to consider possible products in this space, though again, I don’t know much about what products there are or what their individual strengths and weaknesses are; several people I’ve spoken to so far have explicitly suggested Microsoft SharePoint as being what they’re thinking of when they say ‘DMS’; other products I’ve heard mentioned include Alfresco as a sort of open source SharePoint, FormScape (which I believe may already be in use within the Finance Office), and Documentum as the sort of heavy-weight market leader in this space. One thing we’d need to watch out for with most off-the-shelf systems is that they generally claim to do a lot more than just document management; SharePoint in particular is like a sort of swiss army knife of a server, claiming to do document management, web content management, portal management, project management and for all I know moon landing management. We’d need to be sure that we could wall the application off so that it doesn’t offer features which would compete with tools which we already use.

Another possibility is to consider whether we could build something for the job, or adapt one of our existing applications. Files.Warwick is probably the closest to what would be required, though it lacks version history, check-in/out, the idea of a “locked” archive, and most challengingly of all, it lacks a way to connect to it directly from your desktop (other than FTP). But it does have some of what’s needed; granular permissions, easy sharing, notifications and so on. But then I also wonder if the name recognition which SharePoint, in particular, seems to enjoy, would be important in that anything which isn’t SharePoint runs the risk of being rejected on that basis alone.

Anyway, we’re a long way from package selection. But it does seem as if some sense of what we might be looking for is starting to emerge from the mist.

October 24, 2007

IMAP coming to GMail

Writing about web page

Gmail is great, except that you have to either use the web client or pop your messages off it and into an email client. If only it supported IMAP, then you’d be able to use a nice client such as Thunderbird but still keep all your messages on the GMail server so you don’t have to worry about keeping your messages in sync when you move from one computer to another.

And it looks as though the wait is finally over: some users are supporting that IMAP support is appearing in their account settings screen, and the Google docs centre has a bunch of pages about IMAP support. Combine this with the recent bump in space (the allocation for my account has gone from 2.8GB to 4.4GB over the last few weeks), the excellent support for access from mobile devices, and there’s not much more I can think of to want from an email service.

July 06, 2007

Writing about web page

How the heck is still in business? It quite blatantly publishes complete episodes of current TV shows in high resolution, high quality format, available to watch in the browser (with a small divx plugin) or to download to your PC.

Here, for example, are episodes 18 and 19 of Heroes, all the episodes of Dr Who you could ever want, and Life on Mars series 2, episode 1. Have they got some sort of invisibility cloak or something?

July 04, 2007

Recording internet radio

Writing about web page

So here’s a clever idea: there are lots of internet radio stations around the world which stream songs to your computer in the form of MP3 files. Being MP3 files, they have metadata in the stream which identifies the song and the artist. If you could somehow watch thousands of these internet radio stations at once, you could theoretically capture and keep almost any popular song within a few hours, just as (if you’re old enough) you perhaps once used to record the top 40 from Radio 1. And since recording Radio 1 for your own personal use wasn’t and isn’t illegal, isn’t the same true of making a recording from an internet radio station?

The snag is, of course, that it’s hard to monitor all these stations at once so that if you’re looking for, say, the new Chemical Brothers single, you can spot it as soon as a station starts playing it and start your recording. But since this is machine-readable data, that’s not a job that a human being needs to do any more, and so we find an interesting piece of software called RadioTracker. From the web page:-

Its built-in music database provides you with listings of over 80,000 artists and their music. Simply point, click and add your favourite artists and titles to your Wish List. Radiotracker delivers the music you’ve selected in MP3 format as soon as it is played on any of over 18,000 watched internet radio stations worldwide.

There even seems to be a bit of peer-to-peer cleverness going on between all running instances of the program:-

State-of-the-art, distributed technology is the secret to Radiotracker’s power. Leveraging this transparent functionality, Radiotrackers around the world are able to automatically inform each other about which internet radio station is beginning to play which music. Each executing Radiotracker Platinum application automatically sends all other Radiotracker applications a tiny message about which music is just beginning to play and where. ... It’s totally brilliant, and it’s totally legal.

Is it, though? The logic seems plausible; recording off the radio is legal, so recording off internet radio is legal, so getting a robot (where’s my icon designer?) to listen to internet radio stations for artists and songs you like and then recording them is legal. But the site fairly brazenly asserts that if their software works as described, the net effect is that you’ll be able to acquire all the MP3s you want costlessly and legally:-

Listening to radio broadcasts over the internet is fully legal. And just like with terrestrial radio, internet broadcasts can also be legally recorded. The broadcasting of radio programs requires the official approval of each country, along with payment of fees.

But aren’t “costlessly” and “legally” somewhat at odds with each other? It seems as though there ought to be something wrong with this picture, yet I suppose if you elected to build up your music collection solely by taping off the radio and you kept your collection to yourself, you’d be essentially legal; is this any different?

May 31, 2007

Google knows faces

Writing about web page

Astonishingly, Google seem to have secretly added an optional parameter to their image search service: imgtype=face. If you add this parameter to the end of your search string, only matches with faces in them are returned. Compare:-

The interesting question, of course, is, how the metadata is done. Does Google have face recognition algorithms which it’s applying to its image search indexes? Or have they tapped into something like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program to get human beings to do the recognition? Either way, pretty cool feature. I wonder if there are, or will be, other “imgtype=” parameters: “imgtype=building”? “imgtype=car”? etc.

Update 1: imgtype=news also works

Update 2: Perhaps this is the first output of the Google Image Labeller project, where paired human volunteers are asked to look at and label images.

May 18, 2007

Pogue's Posts: Recommendations

Writing about web page

David Pogue writes a very smart column and blog for the New York Times. A couple of weeks ago he published a list of recommendations for the gadgets most people are most likely to want to buy. He’s a smart reviewer and he understands what makes gadgets useful and usable in the real world, so I’m linking to and summarising his advice as a note to myself for next time I’m in the market for any of these devices:-

  • Best Small Camera: Canon SD800IS.
  • Best Amateur SLR: Nikon D40.
  • Best Camcorder: Canon HV20.
  • Best DVR: TiVo Series 3.
  • Best Smartphone (for now): TIE: Treo 700p (usually $300), BlackBerry Curve (probably $200).
  • Best Laptop: MacBook. (... light-years cleaner and smoother than Windows laptops …)

Time marches on, of course, so these recommendations are probably only good for a couple of months or so (in fact Canon have already announced the SD850IS, the successor to the SD800).

April 02, 2007

Microsoft maps on

When I first saw Google Earth and found that I could get an aerial view of places such as where I live and work, it knocked my socks off; it’s an astonishing and slightly eerie sensation to be able to zoom in from outer space to a view of your own house detailed enough to see your car parked outside it. In fact I was so taken with it that I spent a week or so developing an aerial view of the Warwick campus for Warwick’s own web site.

It was hard to imagine how anyone could improve on Google Earth, but Microsoft have recently released new aerial photography on their site which significantly betters Google’s data in a couple of ways:-

  1. First (and less significantly) the data is more up-to-date. If you look at the Warwick campus, for example, the new Business School and the new Education building on the Westwood campus are both present.
  2. But much more impressively, Microsoft have introduced angled views as opposed to straight-down ones. The problem with a straight-down view is that unless you’re Superman or rich enough to own a glass-bottomed plane, it’s unnatural; it’s a view which you will never actually see in real life. It’s a great way to visualise size, shape and distance, but it’s not what you’d actually see if you looked out of an aeroplane window, and it can make it hard to mentally match what you’re seeing with what you’re expecting.

Here are two views of the Warwick Piazza from, the first one straight down and the second one angled :-

Microsoft maps screenshot

Even more impressively, if you select the angled view, you can choose the direction you see it from. Here’s the Piazza from the north, the south, the east and the west. Astonishing.

February 06, 2007

Cancel or allow?

Windows Vista includes User Account controls which purport to warn the user whenever anything happens which could theoretically be dangerous. This feature has been widely reported as being, shall we say, over-zealous, to the point where many users are likely to switch it off because it’s too intrusive. But then, how would you be warned if bad things really were happening? Apple have gleefully seized on this dilemma and made a new one of their Get a Mac adverts about it:-

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