Thursday, 17 December 2009

Sleep In Heavenly Peace

I was reading just now about how tired we all are. A few years ago Ariana Huffington (she of the Huffington Post) apparently passed out through exhaustion, fell over, broke her cheekbone and had to have five stitches.

That's a serious case of your body telling you to slow down. Which she did.

Which I hope to do also over the next few Christmas weeks. I may even turn email off on my iPhone (hmmm, let me think about that one...).

I suggest we all do. I wouldn't want to run into you in the New Year and have to ask "What happened to your face?"

ps the story is part of Seth Godin's new free online book What Matters Now.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Moving Images, Moving

I was at the launch of Wellcome Film the other night, the hard work of Angela Saward, Curator of the Moving Images and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library. They're putting hundreds of hours of, frankly, amazing video online for free here.

The day before I was at another museum looking at streaming multiple HD streams over their network and pondering the viability of delivering HD to a ship.

At the weekend I was talking to a friend at the BBC who mentioned that researchers use an iPlayer-like platform to view the mountains of digitally archived BBC output. Waaaay more than we ever get to see on iPlayer.

My how we've grown up. I probably watch more web-based TV than broadcast nowadays. My especial favourite is iPlayer on the new iPhone with a built in speaker. Wandering the house watching back episodes of Top Gear...

A few years ago I had dinner with a friend who worked at Gartner and we were discussing the likelihood of IPTV taking off. This was probably just prior to YouTube going mainstream. He confidently asserted that the internet would "break" if something like that happened. I guessed two things would happen: network capacity and bandwidth would grow and compression algorithms would improve. A bigger pipe and a smaller file. I'm not sure I was entirely right, but the internet hasn't "broken" just yet.

So what's the next frontier?

Undoubtedly video on mobile - streaming video both to and from your phone. 15 million people viewed mobile video content in the second quarter in the US - only 7% of all mobile users, but up 70% on the previous year (Nielsen Mobile Video Report 2009).

Ustream allows anyone to broadcast their mobile video.

A lot of what we're doing at Armadillo is starting to take into account this demographic. They're young and influential, but this is moving mainstream as users want to consume all their media and continue all their conversations wherever they are.

A big game-changer could be the long-rumoured Apple Tablet - a ten inch screen iPod Touch/iPhone. Put me down for one.

And get ready to fix them internet pipes. Just in case...

Friday, 11 September 2009

The third space

In his book "The Architecture of Happiness", Alain de Botton goes to some lengths to outline how we are different people in different spaces. He cites the example of a miserable experience in a crowded McDonalds in Victoria "The restaurant's true talent lay in the generation of anxiety".

Leaving the bedlam noise, he found himself outside Westminster Cathedral, and entered to avoid the rain. "Concepts that would have sounded demented 40 metres away, in the company of a party of Finnish teenagers and vats of frying oil, had succeeded - through a work of architecture - in acquiring supreme significance and majesty".

I'm working at the moment on developing interactives for a "third space" for a museum. Not a public gallery, and not a reading room, we are trying to develop a space where people can be themselves and still explore the collections digitally.

I hope this will mean conversation and coffee, parents and children, sofas and cellphones. So many spaces we engineer in cultural spaces are, by need or tradition, constraining. We become an unfamiliar person. The hushed whisper in a gallery, the frustrating peering at undersized labels.

In this third space good things can happen. I was in Cambridge again yesterday at the library. Mostly I go to the tea room, as it was pointed out to me a while ago "Oh, that's where all the real work gets done."

Monday, 7 September 2009

One day...

If you're archiving material in a digital repository or just making a backup of an archive, there's one thing you don't want to do if you're thinking long term. Use proprietory standards. Use formats like JPEG2000 for delivery and as proxy files for sure, and use pdf files for ease of portability, but don't rely on them for posterity. Because Adobe will go out of business. Maybe not soon, maybe not for 50 years, but it will disappear. That's what happens to commercial companies.

So that's why I'm delighted that we're finally seeing some mainstream pushback against the Google Books settlement. It's been all over the BBC website like a rash the last week or so.

I'm not going into the mechanics here, but my view is simple. Businesses have one driver - profit, and they change and disappear, and we cannot allow our cultural heritage, the drivers of scholarship, learning, research and innovation to be in the hands of any commercial entity.

For more on this see what the Open Books Alliance have to say.

Friday, 28 August 2009

In the Zone

One thing that has been occupying some of my thinking recently has been the way trains of thought break down.

You know, when you've got an idea or theory and you're desperate to commit it to paper before it evaporates. I was in Cambridge the other day talking with some Darwin scholars about the manuscripts of "On the Origin of Species". I asked them whether there was any evidence of Darwin's fluidity of thought. Sometimes you write in a staccato way, struggling to formulate or express ideas, and sometimes it just flows - the ideas are clear in your mind and stream onto the page as if your pen is just a conduit.

Their eyes lit up "Yes, yes!" they said. Apparantly on occasion Darwin was writing so fast that, when he turned a page, almost the entire recto was still wet with ink, and they can see the impression of that wet ink on the facing verso. Sometimes this happened for page after page, Charles Darwin writing faster than the ink could dry.

Almost 150 years after the publication of the "Origin", we're still finding out much about how it was written.

That's why I love working with libraries.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Finally the Penny Drops

I couldn't make it myself, but Nicholas Serota and Neil McGregor (head honchos at the Tate and British Museum respectively) spoke at the LSE last week about the Museum of the 21st Century.

Amazingly enough, their conclusion seemed to be that it lay on the internet. "Well hello..." you might say.

But they also seem to have identified the fact that museums need to act as broadcasters and publishers, which starts to address a fundamental problem: access isn't enough.

Years ago there was a massive drive towards digitisation, with libraries leading the way. We all know about Google Print.

Looking at the petabytes of scans made the institutions happy that they now had a valuable asset. Like having money in the bank. That you're not allowed to touch.

Most have yet to realise how to surface that content in an engaging way, or provide shared experiences around it. Nick Poole from the Collections Trust commented on the talk "We really do need a new product to excite these people - which might still focus on interacting with Collections in a browser, but in much more imaginative and mediated ways." (You would be right at this point to think this is where Armadillo comes in).

But then we also need museums to take up the challenge of interpretation, and herein lies their role as broadcasters and publishers. A layer of mediation, interpretation and facilitation between the object and the public preserves the role of the museum curator. How many European teenagers do you see wandering the galleries of our museums, with looks of blank incomprehension on their faces. "I know this is important stuff" you can hear them say to themselves (maybe in German...) "but I don't know why".

We can do something about this.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Unravelling strings

I just got back from a beach holiday where my son's kite string got tangled up. So instead of a relaxing afternoon peering into rockpools, I spent hours unravelling knotted string, trying to get a simple straight line from his hand to the kite. Before that I was in Atlanta, where much the same was going on at the Open Repositories conference. Database guys and other assorted geeks trying to unravel a nightmare of databases and repositories to make a simple connection between the user and the data he needs.

But the good news seems to be that they're winning. Some of the work done facilitating cross-repository search makes it look (whisper it...) easy.

This is in no small part due to the emergent standards that I've talked about before, OAI-ORE and SWORD, which make real data migration possible.

Also interesting was the merger of DSpace and Fedora into one organisation; DuraSpace. The message was that they can benefit from working together as well as not chasing the same funding opportunities.

Instead of competing with each other they now have another company to worry about - Microsoft. The engaging Tony Hey was on hand to launch Zentity, a repository built on the Microsoft stack. The pitch was that the institutions already owned and had paid for Windows Server, IIS, SQL Server etc, so Zentity was leveraging that investment. For free.

The Scholarly Communications team have been making big efforts in the last couple of years to convince people that there is a "new Microsoft", which I've found to be true. There is also an "old Microsoft" however and this dissonance will make life hard for the team.

Whatever the case the entry of Microsoft into this space means the pace is about to pick up.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Continuous Partial Attention

I like that phrase. Everyone I run it past gets it straight away. "Oh yeah, it's when you're watching TV and sending a text at the same time!" Yup. Or on your mobile when you're with a group of people, or using an interactive or website while you're chatting with a friend.

It's bubbled up to the surface again this week due to a couple of things. I was listening to an interview with the MD of Odeon cinemas. Strangely one of his biggest problems isn't bittorrents or DVDs - it's mobile phones. He stated that under 16s just don't get the fact that they shouldn't have full-volume conversations on their mobiles in a cinema, and typically 2 or 3 are going on at any one time during a film with this audience. Under 16's are cool with this. Older people are not.

Then I was at a do at Microsoft. They called it an un-conference, which has come to mean many things. This one meant that they live streamed a keynote address from the Mix09 conference in Vegas on a big screen, but at the same time you could play with demos, chat to friendly softies or get a beer. It was fun, but the level of information going in was compromised for me.

The really interesting thing is that I think I'm a dying breed. Clearly younger audiences have acclimated to absorbing information in this way to some extent. But the challenge facing user interface and user experience professionals will be how we manage to feed this growing audience in a way that both suits their "grazing" approach and provides quality information.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Small and Perfectly Formed

Smaller is the new bigger. Not only for banks, but also for computers. Two stats jumped out at me this week.

One from Net Applications. It shows that, in the last quarter, 68% of all mobile internet traffic was generated by one device. The iPhone. In second place was Windows Mobile. With 7%. Nokia and Blackberry even further behind.

This tells us a few things. First, the iPhone is very popular (which we sort of knew). Second, people are using it for mobile internet access. Thirdly, I believe all that has happened is that that device has opened the floodgates. There had been a huge pent up demand for mobile web use, but people just weren't surfing from their handhelds because the experience was so bad (hold your hand up Windows Mobile 5, and you 6...). Come up with a device that made it a pleasure....WHOOSH, the floodgates open. What that means is that when other device manufacturers catch up, they will exploit that demand.

Just to reinforce the fact that mobiles are the new computers, according to the same source, iPhones accounted for 0.48% of all internet traffic in the last quarter. Linux was only 0.86%.

Next stat. As we might expect, desktop, and even laptop sales are expected to tank this year. Gartner are predicting an 11.9% overall decline, with desktops plumetting by 31%. Yet the sales of those small form factor netbooks are on a crazy upwards curve. Acer sold 500,000 Aspire One netbooks in 2008. It's forecasting sales of 12,000,000 in 2009. For one model. Many of these devices are internet-connected with 3G cards, giving us the same scenario as with the iPhone - instant access anywhere.

One thing is clear - we will have to come up with offerings that pay attention to users location, allow for smaller screens and respond to very short usage sessions. We're cooking something up here at Armadillo Towers, so stay tuned.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Things That Matter

When I was young my dad wanted me to be a lawyer. I went to see one of the big five law firms in the city and had a long and dull conversation with someone in a grey suit. I couldn't see the point. What did being a lawyer do to contribute to society, or even my own well being? Sure I'd be well paid, but it clearly wasn't for me.

Guy Kawasaki (former Apple evangelist turned VC) says every business needs a mantra - something to measure your actions by. When people ask me about Armadillo I say that we like to do the things that matter - work that, if we looked at it from the outside, we'd say "I'm glad someone did that - it was worth doing".

So a few weeks ago I was pleased to see Tim O'Reilly blog about "Work on Stuff that Matters".

There are a lot of people who just took a job for the money. The money and the job are now gone, and I guess that there are a lot of under-employed bankers wondering what to do next. Hopefully it might be something that matters.

Most people in the cultural sector aren't in it for the money - they're in it because they like it and what they do stimulates them, and it might just matter. Now's a good time to give yourself a little credit and count those blessings if that's you.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Co-operate ORE else...

Excuse the nerdy pun, but interoperability has been in my thoughts a lot recently.

A big project, unifying the collections of 9 different establishments just failed to get funding after a year of work. We asked the funders why and it came down to the politics. It was just felt to be too hard to get everyone to play nicely together. Sure, when we looked into it, individual data repositories were wildly different and metadata standards had been lovingly honed in isolation over the last 30 years. Melding them into a coherent whole was going to be, umm, challenging, but we knew that all along.

As standards like OAI-ORE emerge, and start to demonstrate how we can move not only data, but objects around the web, we should be entering a period where virtual loans, digital repatriation and unified collections are commonplace.

But we're not there yet.

Because all this is ultimately about people. If we let politics stymie endeavours such as these, scholarship suffers.