Monday, 22 September 2008

It's the experience stupid...

Which end of the tunnel do you start digging from? Do you start off with digitising your collection, or designing a user experience first?

Two of our clients are taking very different approaches to this problem. In an ideal world of course, you'd do both at the same time and the tunnelers would meet up and shake hands. But most institutions aren't blessed with the budget, staff or energy to do that.

I asked the question from the floor at a conference a while ago, and addressed it to a body who were digitising 3,000 books a day. "What are you working on around user experience, or surfacing all this content?" The answer was "We haven't really got there yet". I see this a lot. The imperative is to scan, users often come a distant second.

Last week G. Wayne Smith, Secretary of the Smithsonian said:

"I worry about museums becoming less relevant to society... I think we need to take a major step. Can we work with outside entities to create a place, for example, where we might demonstrate cutting-edge technologies to use to reach out to school systems all over the country? I think we can do that."

This echoes the BL/JISC report earlier this year on the researcher of the future:

"The library profession desperately needs leadership to develop a new vision for the 21st century and reverse its declining profile and influence. This should start with effecting that shift from a content-orientation to a user-facing perspective."

I love Apple products - I have done since using an Apple Mac 256K in maybe 1985. Are Apple successful because they're cool, or are they cool because they are one of the only computer vendors to successfully integrate great content (eg music/movies) and great software and hardware (iTunes/iPod)? Put these together and you get a great user experience.

So who's going to be the Apple of the library or museum world. Could be the Smithsonian...

Monday, 15 September 2008

Technology as a synapse

"Thinking" said GK Chesterton, "is making connections".

A while ago I was lucky enough to spend an hour or so with Sir George White, erstwhile master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, in their small and jewel-like museum in London's Guildhall Library. He patiently talked me through the evolution of time-keeping and it's importance. Two things I recall.

One was the simple premise that those navigators who knew the time knew their location. Knowing where they were allowed them to map, name and own. This premise undergirded the foundation of the British Empire and helps explain the importance of John Harrisons chronometer.

The other was the scarcity of the knowledge of time. Up until the 1940 Ruth Belville took a very old but highly reliable chronometer to Greenwich every morning to set it precisely. She then walked into the West End of London and sold the precise time to watchmakers for a few pennies, allowing them to correctly set the time of the clocks in their shop.

Yesterday I was at Lyme Park in Lancashire and came across a collection of clocks by Thomas Tompion, Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in 1703.

Sir George had told me of the importance of Tompion, and using the web I might have been able to connect Tompion or the museum with the collection at Lyme. The promise of the internet is connected knowledge, but we will always rely on people to help us make these connections.

Digitising and providing access to collections is one thing, but interpretation allows us to make connections.

Until the semantic web becomes a reality...

Monday, 8 September 2008

Seeing the light

Microsoft have been steadily porting a number of their key web properties to Silverlight over the last few months, starting with their dev sites, but the big (expensive?) coup was to get NBC to use Silverlight to broadcast the Olympics using Silverlight 2.0 (in beta no less).

For those who haven't come across Silverlight it's Microsoft's cross-platform entry into the Rich Internet Application space. People have compared it to Flash, but it's a bit more than that. With the ability to include HD video, act as a wrapper for C#, Python or Ruby, plus integrate seamlessly into a Visual Studio environment, it has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Just not the installed base.

So how did its debut go? Pretty well by all accounts. On 11th August, according to Microsoft, they served 250Tb of data on that day alone, and the uptake means that up to 8 million people a day are downloading Silverlight.

Adobe counter this with a smug 10 million downloads a day, plus an alleged installed base of 99% of all PCs online in mature markets, added to which they have a huge developer community with a strong vested interest in the platform.

My take is that Microsoft will start to eat away at Flash's dominance. Adobe's download numbers represent a large number of people downloading updates; Microsofts are nearly all first-time users of the technology. In the real world therefore Adobe is not pulling away from Microsoft.

Microsoft also claim there are 2.5 million .NET developers out there. All of those people will now be able to write Silverlight code right away, and even potentially repurpose existing applications in a relatively pain-free way.

But how to get the plug-in to the people? I can't see them being allowed to bundle it with IE8 for fear of further anti-trust legislation, so it comes back to content. Put up great content and people will put up with a 4Mb install.

When I first came across Silverlight it was called wpf/e (Windows Presentation Foundation everywhere) and pretty much the whole developer team was sitting in a small room in Redmond. The team passed 100 a year ago, and it's safe to assume it's still growing.

Microsoft has a lot at stake here. Bear in mind that this is effectively still a beta for Silverlight 1.0. Flash 1.0 was basically just a vector animation tool.

As an interesting historical footnote, the first people to use Flash online were Microsoft (MSN) in 1996 when it was called Future Splash. On the back of that success Jonathan Gay sold his company to Macromedia who re-christened the software "Flash", before being absorbed by Adobe.

So Microsoft only have themselves to blame...