The future is coming ready-or-not

Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

iCloud and Ubuntu

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Apple finally announced iCloud, reinforcing that the Cloud is ready for consumers. It validates some of the things we’ve been doing in Ubuntu and encourages us to think about how the trend will impact free software in the future.Cringley focuses on Apple targeting Microsoft by making the desktop category just like a device and moving everyone onto the Internet. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:

“We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device – just like an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod Touch. We’re going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud.”

I don’t know if this targets Microsoft, I do know that Apple has done as much as anyone to make the network a central part of our digital life.

It’s clear that we all spend more time online – if you stand-back you can see see our increased dependence on the Web (we spend more time on-line than watching TV), along with how central some web apps are becoming to our lives (from Facebook to Google calendar). You might question how quickly this is happening or how widely spread: there’s not much bandwidth in Africa, and I often find it surprising how poor connectivity is in rural areas. But, that’s just a question of timing – large numbers of users already think of their computers and the Web as being synonymous.

The Web itself is rapidly becoming the standard development platform and storage medium for applications. With HTML5 and its’ extended technologies we will see increasingly complex and capable web apps: this Financial Times HTML5 app is a nice example and tweaks Apple’s tail! Even if the interface of everything can’t be a Web front-end, then data storage is also moving in that direction: increasingly users think of their content as being ‘available’ everywhere – meaning online.

From a user perspective this means we all expect to access our favourite applications and our personal data at any point from a myriad of devices. The impact on Windows is that the field is being reset, both at a software and a hardware level. Microsoft is not a cherished consumer brand that everyone loves so they will have to start over. But, it equally impacts anyone that wants to create a general operating system – Ubuntu being my concern.

If everything is on the network, and the network provides many of the applications then there’s going to be a fundamental set of shifts in how the system stack supports the user. Among the many areas, two things stand out for me.

The first theme is that we need to provide ways for users to store and access their content online. We’ve seen Apple’s system, we’re bound to see systems from all the titans of the industry as well at a lot of start-ups. This could be fantastic for users, but there’s also potential for drawbacks if there’s no standardisation – we don’t want to go back to a world of locked in data.

But it’s deeper than data, users don’t think “I need my data” they think “I want my photos of Nancy the dog” which means we need to attach storage and applications together. That’s why in Ubuntu One we talk about the personal cloud and we’re providing both applications and API’s to build on top of basic data storage and sync. Any data storage (including Ubuntu One) also needs to be available across multiple platforms so that our users can access their content whenever they want or need it. Importantly, to make the Cloud the central storage location it needs to be fully integrated and seamlessly part of the users experience – going to the ‘Web folder’ is a fail!

The second theme is that the operating system will be a window onto the Web, and this changes what it needs to present to the user and the services it provides to applications. From a user perspective we need to integrate the Web so that there’s no difference between local and network applications. Moreover, some of the metaphors of the Web are impacting how users think about interacting with their computers, take search as an example.

For applications to be truly integrated it will mean that the system stack will need to provide services that web application developers can use. For example, rather than signing into a myriad of different web applications how can the system stack authenticate me to them seamlessly. Perhaps even the idea of local and web apps will need to disappear, if we can provide technologies that help web application developers create applications that work both locally and through the network.

A final thought, I said at the start that Apple has done as much as anyone to make the vision of a connected world real. But Unix and Linux has done even more – network computing is central to our technology, and distributed community is central to our ethos. For me this means Ubuntu has great strengths it can draw on as we create this future – Ubuntu can be the operating system for the rest of us in a connected world!


Written by Steve George

June 10, 2011 at 08:09

Nokia n900 review

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As I write this I’m rocketing across Belgium shortly to transit under the channel on the Eurostar train. I’m crossing a continent rich in history and conflict. But to be honest, it’s an antiseptic journey. Unfortunately, my laptop isn’t on-line, and without a connection it won’t relieve the boredom. Luckily my phone is online. It’s my phone that I’m using to stay connected to the Internet, making sure I’m not missing anything important and keeping me amused during the journey. With it I’m reading e-mail and RSS along with communicating through instant messaging.

As we move towards a world that is mobile and connected the phone is much closer to the type of computing experience I want than the traditional PC. Perhaps without realising it phones are becoming a very significant computing platform. We’re using an increasing number of them – billions of phones ship a year, millions of computers by contrast.  And as you know emerging areas of the world are very big on phones! Finally, smart phones are becoming very powerful, Moores law and all that.

So if you talk about pervasive computing, the incarnation we have of that today is the smart phone: it performs some set of computing tasks and it’s always available to me since I always carry it. Consequently, if you’re interested in what the future of computing looks like then it’s going to have a lot of the characteristics of the phone.

I recently got a Nokia n900 which has a lot of the characteristics that I think are important in a pervasive computing platform. First, for all that we love touch you need data entry and that means a keyboard of some form.  Second, if it’s pervasive then it better be well connected, because I move around a lot. If it’s an always-available computer then it has to be able to do more than one thing at a time, because I’m doing more than one thing at a time. Clearly, it has to have a wide range of applications and that includes full Web capability since lots of “applications” I access like Facebook are on the Web. And it has to be configurable, it’s my device and while it may be managed, I want to customise it.

So having set out my strawman it’s easy for me to conclude that the n900 ticks all those boxes. And it does, the N900 really is a good personal computing platform, it has a lot of the elements I listed. On the other hand, it’s not a very good phone!

OK, so I set the punch line up. Seriously though, if you just want a phone then you’re missing the point of the n900.  Yes, the voice quality is good, and the integration with contacts and conversations is very nice, the embedded usage of Skype and ability to use VOIP/Skype is very interesting.  But it has quirks as a pure phone, and anyway it’s noticeably large, heavy and the battery life borders on terrible.

As a mobile computing platform though it’s very cool. The more I use n900 the more impressed I am with the software package.  Maemo feels very well put together to me, it’s fast, looks good and the UI has some interesting innovations. Maemo is Open Source and Nokia have been working to develop a community around it for a few years. It’s still raw in parts but if it keeps on maturing and benefits from Open Source innovation then it’s going to be great.

Outside from the general user interface the software stack is also very strong. If you want something decent for e-mail then the n900 is a good choice. The native e-mail client handles IMAP very well, the wizards make it easy to set-up and the keyboard is fine – it’s actually better than a blackberry I tried recently, since push e-mail isn’t important to me. It’s got a fantastic full browser that can access heavy Javascript sites. If you use the new mobile Firefox browser then resource hungry sites like Gmail and Google reader are absolutely fine. It’s able to handle instant messaging over a range of different networks which makes for a feeling that you’re constantly in touch with people. The RSS reader is rubbish though, it should be taken outside and quietly shot – seriously no off-line mode!?

If you’re in the market for a new smart phone and you want something a little different, or you’re looking for something a bit more powerful and hackable than the other options out there then check out the N900.

Written by Steve George

January 31, 2010 at 13:05

Webcasts from the Oxford Internet Institute

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The Oxford Internet Institute has videos of guest speakers who address the research group. The files are very large (200MB+) but they’re in a format that you should be able to view in Linux, Windows or Mac OS X. The sites worth browsing around as there’s lots of interesting content. The one I’m linking is by David Isenberg from The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, his talk is wide-ranging and focuses on how he sees the Internet developing.

This is a total cheat of a post as I wrote it ages ago and forgot to publish it. As I’m back from the US today and barely functioning enough to read I thought wandering through my post queue would suit my available brain power!

Written by Steve George

January 8, 2007 at 00:32

Posted in Internet, Uncategorized

Samsung launches Nokia 770 competitor

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Samsung have launched their Q1 ultra-mobile PC which will compete against the Nokia 770 Internet tablet. This is one of the first of the Origami machines that Microsoft designed to make the PC more mobile. Like the Nokia 770 Internet tablet it's a small (pocket sized) handheld with a touch screen and no inbuilt keyboard.

The launch didn't go that well, according to the Korean Times (via Chris Head). The demo machine had problems during the press release:

"[T]he new PC proved to be too revolutionary, enough to baffle the three firms' executive officers who publicly tried to demonstrate how to use it."

Interestingly they quote Kim Hun-soo, Vice President of Samsungs PC division who says that the battery life will be short:

"Kim later admitted that Q1 has three hours of battery life and two hours when watching a DVD, which is comparably short to other laptops."

The unit will cost about 1.2 million won in Korea, which converts to 673 GBP. Aside from a quick chuckle at a failed demo it's great that machines based on the Origami concept are getting to market. Bob Young the co-founder of RedHat used to say that he didn't want all of a small pie, but a small piece of a big pie. More Origami PC's can only help to increase the popularity of the mobile Internet and hopefully will bring new users and applications to the party.

Has anyone played with a UMPC yet? And, what do you think the Nokia 770 developers can learn from the Origami?

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Written by Steve George

May 24, 2006 at 12:20

Posted in Internet, Nokia 770

Managing your identity with ClaimID

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In the Internet's environment of free expression passions often run hot. Flamewars and vitriolic rants enliven online conversations making them interesting and human. But, will those passionate words come back to haunt you? What picture do they paint to a prospective employer, and what inferences will be drawn about you in thirty years time? A digital world is transforming our identities, making them public.

Our online activities leave a trail of bread crumbs behind us that search engines gather together. Try searching yourself on Google or egoSurf, to see what trail you've already left behind. As more of our activities migrate online they become public, indexable and searchable. The read-write web envisioned by Web 2.0 is increasing this trend as it stores social relationships and interactions. Consider what Flickr, Delicious, Technorati and Friendster could reveal about you: this might include information on your holidays, hobbies and work.

Managing our identity is a complex issue because it involves issues of ownership, perception and change. A key problem is we all play a variety of parts (personas) in different social spheres. As Shakespeare said in As you Like it (Act ii. Sc. 7):

"All the world 's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts"

For example, character aspects we emphasise in work may be different to those we accentuate in our local community. The virtual world doesn't recognise social boundaries so merges our interactions into a single identity which may be misleading.

ClaimID is a service that helps you to categorise your personas and present a multi-faceted on-line identity. You gain control by sifting and sorting links about yourself into groups. These groups represent social spheres and together they represent how you wish to be perceived. When someone wants to find out about you, or you want provide information about yourself you can direct them to your ClaimID page.

To use the service you sign up for a home page where you collect and group links that describe and annotate your identity. So you might have a group called Personal where you collect links that describe you personally such as your blog, delicious and flickr. Another group would be Professional with links to organisations and places you've worked. ClaimID lets you specify who authored the link and whether it's about you or not. The completed page is a list of groups that defines your personas and aggregates them into a single meta-identity. This is my page for Steve George.

It's a nice service, cleanly presented and executed. It took me about two hours to decide what groups I wanted and to populate my page. It would have been nice if there were some templates to use, and perhaps a wizard to make searching for yourself easier. The most time consuming aspect was finding links and deciding what was appropriate. My name is very common and my online footprint anaemic so my links were sunk under a army of impostor Stephen George, Steve George and slgeorge pages.

ClaimID doesn't tackle information collecting about you on the Interent. And we often value what we find out about someone more than what they tell us about themselves. Nor does it authenticate us and attest to our identity. But it is an interesting first step to managing our identity.

Do you think that the Internet is changing identity? And, is ClaimID a useful way of managing your identity?

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Written by Steve George

May 23, 2006 at 14:23

Nokia 770 raw but indispensable

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The Nokia 770 device needs work, but it’s indispensable to my daily routine! Nokia developed the Internet tablet as a new category for mobile use of the Internet. Viewing web pages, reading e-mail and news (RSS) through Wi-Fi. It competes against the Origami, UMPC concept, but is cheaper and available. Yesterday, they pre-announced that the next release will include Google Talk providing instant messaging and VOIP.

Plenty of reviews cover the device, so I’ll focus on how I’m using it. As with any new platform it has warts but overall I find the device useful and usable. It’s designed for mobile usage of the Internet, whether from the sofa or at a wifi hotspot. Think of it as a portable TV for the Internet.

I don’t use most of the applications. The e-mail client is poor, it’s unusable for monitoring lists. And I’m not really into media. So I don’t use the Internet radio, because I haven’t bothered to find any stations: there should be a default list like Apple’s iTunes radio section.

But, I use the device every morning to catch-up with RSS. You can read news feeds off-line so I can take advantage of it on my commute or sitting in the local coffee shop. If I see anything interesting I can e-mail it to myself for further investigation. This completely transforms dead travel time enabling me to do something useful. Automatic podcasts downloads might be a nice addition but I’m not sure I’d use it.

I also use it to access Webmail, particularly if I’m on holiday so that I don’t need my laptop. The notepad application is limited but usable for quickly jotting stuff down: I’ve often carried around a notepad for this so perhaps I’m just addicted to notes. Hopefully, a new full screen keyboard will make this easier.

The biggest challenge to Nokia’s ubiquitous Internet vision is the unreasonable prices of Wi-Fi and mobile phone data packages. Most wifi providers charge about 12 GBP per month and you often can’t roam networks. I would probably have to sign-up for more than one package if I wanted to use wifi at Cafe Nero and Starbucks! As for mobile data-plans, these are even more expensive and have limited data transfer. Perhaps IM and VOIP will improve the value proposition, but at the moment it isn’t compelling.

What do you think, will the Internet tablet concept catch-on? How do you use your Nokia 770? And do you think VOIP/IM will increase Wi-Fi take-up?

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Written by Steve George

May 17, 2006 at 14:48

Posted in Internet, Nokia 770, VoIP

Visualising web search

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Attended an interesting talk by Karen Blakeman on Getting more from the Web at the Institute of Directors last night. The audience were business leaders, not technology people so Karen's talk focused on tools and strategies for accomplishing better searching. She did a great job in the time available.

With more time I'd have loved to hear how she undertakes some common business searches. I'm sure every business has looked for information on their competitors, customers and market dynamics. New tools like RSS and blogs also have great potential for actively monitoring market perceptions.

I was surprised how few of the audience had used the advanced search capabilities of Google, probably less than 25%. Admittedly, I'm a Google addict, colleagues get sick of hearing me say "Google is your friend!" to every question. But without some basic knowledge like using phrases and boolean logic you can't get the best results.

Better user interfaces would help searchers to undertake the right search and visualisation tools help to interpret results. My research for web search visualisation tools didn't turn up anything brilliant – ironic I know!

Grokker is the best visualization/visualisation tool I found, it shows you an outline view by subject and a dynamic map view. It's in Flash and searches Google and Wikipedia. It works fine on Mac, I haven't tested if it is compatible with the Linux version of Flash. The Brain does simple but easy to navigate visualisation. It's in Flash and doesn't work properly on Mac or Linux. Kartoo is again written in Flash, and the look and feel seems like it's designed for children but it's an interesting tool. Quitura may be the best tool, if you are a Windows user and are allowed to install software on your computer.

The only cross-platform, non proprietary interface, visualisation for search engines I could find was Clusty. It gives you categories which are somewhat useful. I think the one I may use is, Dogpile, although it isn't aiming at visualisation you can do some comparison between different search engines.

Do you have any secret search tips? And, do you know of any good search visualisation tools or use any of the ones I've mentioned?

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Written by Steve George

May 16, 2006 at 13:06

Posted in Google, Internet, Web