Monday, 15 November 2010

Lowering The Price of Failure

Back in the 60s my mum was a secretary. She spoke a few languages and worked in some cool places, and she used a typewriter. When my sister was born, she gave up work and spent the 70s doing a fair imitation of the Good Life mixed with Abigails Party (think black forest gateau served with home-made wine…).

When we'd all decamped to college she wanted to go back to work, and picked up her typing again. Initially bamboozled by word processing, she was amazed with spellchecking and backspace. Make a typo - no problem: just lean on that left arrow button and hit "Del". No more tippex or white ribbons fed into clackety typewriters.

When Henri Cartier Bresson took photographs in the 30s, he would compose a shot, check the exposure, choose the moment, and press the shutter. Then he'd walk away - the shot done, the moment captured. I read on a blog yesterday about a guy who has an ambition to get 10,000 photos on his Flickr account by Christmas. And he's not even a photographer.

So the thing that has changed is that the price of failure has just dropped.

We're starting out on building a pretty ambitious bit of software. I've been agonising over features and what to include, but the great news is that we don't have one shot. For example, Flickr and Wordpress put out multiple versions of their sites every day. Matt Mullenweg (Wordpress) blogs about this here. If a new feature, or some "optimised" code doesn't work, they just revert back. The price of failure is low.

The price of building software and not iterating it can be very high.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Back to the Future

At our local park fair the other week I picked up Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. Written in 1995, I sort of never got round to reading it.

It deals with the "careers" of a bunch of Microsoft developers who go to Silicon Valley to make it big in a multimedia startup. Back in those days I had just started Armadillo, a multimedia startup in London, so the memories it brought back were acute. If any of these terms means anything to you, you need to find a copy:
- multimedia
- 3DO
- CDi
- 9.6k dialup
- Broderbund
- Voyager
- Powerbook
- NeXT
- SGI Reality Engine

Throw in some Apple-envy and some evocative prose about the Microsoft Redmond campus and I spent a happy and nostalgic couple of hours with this book. At the same time I was clearing out our office and found some awards from 1994 for Best Interactive Multimedia (from the long-gone XYZ magazine), and a BIMA, as well as the Photoshop 1.0 installation disc (one 720K floppy). Then I started boring the guys in the office with old multimedia tales until they surreptitiously plugged their ipods back in...

What was fascinating though was the frustration in the book - trying to build complex experiences within the limitations of the technology (CDROM, slow as treacle dialup) and the money required to build anything. Fifteen years on, both these barriers have gone.

As well as capturing the zeitgeist, the book also presages the arrival of social media and blogging and many of the casual predictions have turned out to be eerily prescient. But then I saw the list of advisors, and with the likes of Kevin Kelley and John Battelle on board he had some good futurologists.

So then I started thinking about 15 years from now. There's a sort of feeling that we're "there"; that we have ubiquitous fast broadband, great developer platforms and loads of free content; that all we will now do is tweak what we have.

So will 2025 be as different to today as Coupland's story is?

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Practice of Work

37 signals are one of my favourite companies. We've used Basecamp for a while, and I like their products, but it's the way they run the company that has always resonated with me.

So this interview with their lead dev was fascinating and contains some business practices that I've adopted (either knowingly or unwittingly) over the years.

Here are some:

- work from home on Friday. I take my kids to school, have a coffee with my wife and then dive in to my emails. 37 Signals go further. In the summer the office closes on Fridays.

- small is beautiful. A friend of mine started a web agency and, for some reason, he thought employing 60 people would be good. So he did. Then it went badly wrong, and 60 people lost their jobs. More people also means more personnel issues, bigger overheads and more management tiers.

- niche thyself (borrowed from Guy Kawasaki). If you're going to be small, find a niche and become the best. As a generalist you have very little ground to defend in any competitive situation.

- enjoy your work. I blogged on this before, but if you don't feel what you do matters, you won't do it well.

- employ smart people. When 37 Signals didn't like the available tools for building websites, they wrote their own. That's now Ruby on Rails. We had no code to convert conventional 3D models to XAML, so we wrote some convertors and built Turning the Pages.

- get code out the door. Then iterate.

- trust your employees. The 18 employees at 37 Signals are spread over 3 countries. The management (such as it is) trusts the people - they're in it together.

If you work for someone else, you might be sighing wistfully and bemoaning the culture you've inherited. If you control the culture however, then you can change it.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Anything's possible when yo' in the Library!

There was a day when not much was possible in the library. Falling asleep was very possible, and, I recall a certain amount of surreptitious eying of female students back at college. Off-curricular study was my specialty though. I remember wading through shelves of books on architecture, fashion, parapsychology and history. My degree was business admin, so none of those contributed much to my grades...

One of the challenges librarians face is assessing the validity of the library as a physical space - not just a collection of data. Hey, why come to the library, when you can kick back in your dorm with your ipod on, your friends dropping by and a can of beer right there?

I've blogged before on the concept that we are different people in different spaces, and we're surely different in a library from our lounge.

So I loved this video on why you should get to the library.

In October we're launching a complete reinvention of the library space with the BL. We're doing the software, but it's the re-imagination of the physical space that will really blow people away. More when it goes live, but there's some stuff here.

Thanks to umjanedoan for the photo licensed under creative commons.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Perils of Certainty

We all like to feel secure, so people who act and speak with certainty about the future are compelling. Doctors who say with conviction that we will live longer if we eat more beetroot. That bananas can stave off Alzheimers (if we eat 20 a day). That spinach is a cancer-beating superfood. Or was it lettuce...

The UK property market was the same. Prices in 2009 would continue to fall said the experts. Except they went up.

I was researching some stuff about trends for the iPad and came up with an article called "The Apple iPhone Doomed to Failure" written just as the iPhone was launching. My favourite quote is the pithy signoff "Apple iPhone. Enjoy the limelight because it won't last long." Being wrong is OK, but the hubris here is on an impressive scale.

So what are we to make of the bullish statements around Flash, HTML5, iPads and slates in general, mobile form factors, app stores, WiMax and so on. Everyone seems so sure.

In the heritage sector we have to take a long view, and we have to do so knowing that every penny has been hard fought for and has to account for itself. So that increasingly means portability, open standards and interoperability. Want to reskin the app - no problem. Expose your data to some other museum with a bigger website - yup. Share the code or build on someone else's work - absolutely. Agility is a word I use a lot nowadays.

Don't be taken in by certainty.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Luttrell Psalter - the Movie

So the kind people at WAG Screen sent me through a copy of their film of the Luttrell Psalter in response to me blogging about it a few weeks ago.

I suppose I was expecting the standard documentary-style piece, with voiceover, pieces to camera, intercut with a couple of re-creations of medieval life. That's certainly a film they could have made, but instead they've made a deceptively simple 20 minute film recreating scenes from the Luttrell Psalter in an effort to transport us back 600 years. No plot, no narration, not many words at all.

As a result, if you just view the film, it's a very impressionistic experience. Oxen, breath steaming in the cold Lincolnshire air, haul a crude but familiar-looking plough across a field. A young boy vaults up a tree to steal some cherries, narrowly escaping a wrathful farmer. Chickens scratch around a farmyard. A wronged wife belabours her penitent husband with a stick. We're left to have our own opinions on how like these people we are and how unlike. How hard life must have been and how rewarding.

The film took 2 years to make, on a budget that wouldn't normally cover the costumes, and the makers traveled to the North West to film red squirrels, to Wales to find a medieval village, and to London to find a scriptorium. This truly was a labour of love, and it shows on the screen.

For those unfamiliar with the book, the interview with the ever-watchable Michelle Brown is required viewing, and helps relate the book to the film.

So as a piece of film-making, experimental archaeology, pedagogy and indeed art, the film is an unlikely success. I hope the team put a copy online soon and it gets the wider audience it deserves.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The New Busy

On my way to work this morning I saw the new Hotmail ad campaign: "Because the new busy is not the old busy". Indeed. Microsoft is getting busy making a play for cloud email. Look out gMail.

It got me thinking though. I'm old enough to have started work before email, internet and mobiles. I remember getting a fax machine for the first time. I'd ring someone up in the US and say "I'm faxing it right now!" and they'd say "It's coming through!!" It felt like a miracle. Most of what we did was face to face or on the phone and by post. I remember lots of cab and bike bills.

Now electronic communication has, of course, supplanted all that. Our phone at Armadillo rings probably twice a day. One of those is normally a wrong number. I get maybe a letter a day.

What's happened is latency has been removed from the system.

"I phoned but you were out", "The cheque's in the post" and "He's out at a meeting - I'll get him to call you when he's back" are all phrases we don't hear any more.

If I don't get a response from a mail or voicemail in a matter of hours, I'm surprised. Often it's minutes. There are many effects of this I think, but here are two.

The first is that we're being hunted down all the time. "Ping" goes our mail client ("I'm after you"). "Ping" (So am I!"). Ping. Ping. Feeling important is OK (not too important though), but feeling pursued is not OK.

Fred Wilson, a well-known New York VC wrote about his working vacations:
"I block out 90 minutes in the morning when my family is asleep for emails and phone calls"
"I keep my blackberry with me but try to keep it off unless we have some down time like waiting for a tour to begin"
"I also find time to do stuff, like post on the eliptical trainer"

The second is that latency brought time to reflect. A response was considered, measured and then dispensed. There has been a lot written about the dangers of hastily-written emails, but some people I deal with are ploughing through so much communication, that there's just not a lot of thinking going on at all.

So, whilst I wouldn't want to go back to the old busy, we must surely shape our new busy, lest it shape us.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

John Bulmer

I don't know how I've managed to miss him up till now, but just recently, I've come across the work of photographer John Bulmer.

I was asked to look at a project for the National Coal Mining Museum for England, and they had a temporary exhibition of his work. It sits in the same tradition as Martin Parr or Nick Waplington, but the life of the industrial north he captures is unique, at least to me. He was one of the first to shoot documentary style imagery in colour, but, to us, it's a strange, muted world of colour. Very beautiful.

I have to say the social documentary side of his work extrapolates one of my abiding interests; the shift to an urban society and the loss of rural traditions. Bulmer, working mainly in the 1960s and 1970s by the look of it, captures the last years of the industrial north and the communities that had built up in these great smoking cities.

Looking at some of the work now, I feel as remote from that world as I do from that of Froissart or John Stow. How could a world like this disappear so completely in a generation?

Work like this does exist to document the Middle Ages - my favourite is the ever-popular Luttrell Psalter, with its scenes of daily life so joyously depicted in the margins. Talking of the Luttrell Psalter, I just found out there is a "Luttrell Psalter - The Movie".

If you've seen it let me know. If it's on YouTube, even better.

Digitisation So Far

I came across some beautiful 10 x 8 transparencies of an early illuminated Gospels the other day. Truly, they were things of beauty in their own right. Shining, luminous, with a level of detail we'd be hard pressed to capture today, even with the latest digital cameras.

It struck me we've come a long way...

"In the beginning.... we scanned the lovely transparencies on heinously expensive scanners and archived to tape. JPEGs were put online and on CDROM. And, lo, it was dull and slow. And yet it was a start.

A little later we discovered digital cameras, even unto the 4th megapixel, and it was very good. So the JPEGs multiplied and became larger, begetting also JPEG2000s.

On the third day metadata was created. And it formed many tribes, and only the anointed really got to grips with it. Often we looked for it, and it was not to be found.

And it came to pass that man invented machines for scanning, and books could be turned into scans, text and metadata almost before tea-time. And librarians were courted by those from Mountain View. And there was much surprise and consternation amongst the peoples. For surely there is no such thing as a free lunch?

After many years in the wilderness, software was invented by those with few friends. And wherever you were, you might search a catalogue and find treasures therein.

And then the elders met together and decided that it would be a mighty thing to be able to search across many collections and discover treasures wherever they may be found. And federated search came to pass.

Yet in the later days there was still discontent. "Surely this is not enough" the people cried. "We yearn to collaborate, blog and annotate even unto the last digit. We ache to get social and pine for access on the Great iPad of Jobs. When will this come to pass?"

And the elders looked grave and downcast and replied 'This will only come to pass when the day of Provision comes, when dollars shall fall from the sky like spring rain. Until that day, be thankful the days of transparencies are past.'"

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Conditioned Reactions to Spaces

Fancy title eh? But then I'm not sure how else to describe this.

I was at the John Rylands Library in Manchester last week, talking with Carol Burrows and Caroline Checkley-Scott who are part of the new Centre of Digital Excellence there. Nice people both and a good source of lunch recommendations.

I was taking a tour of the amazing Victorian Gothic building and commenting on how people were talking in hushed tones. The building felt just like a church and people were acting that way. I mentioned to Carol that children must be spooked by the place. She laughed and said it was quite the opposite - they loved it and tore around the place. "They just think it's Hogwarts!" she said.

Not having been to church much, this was what the building reminded them of. Unlike their parents.

We're about to launch some software for the Imperial War Museum in a new space called Explore History. Not gallery and not reading room, it's a third space in the museum (I've blogged about this before). Now if this ends up looking like a departure lounge I kind of know how people are going to behave. If it ends up looking like a Starbucks, I'd guess people will behave in a different way.

We'll find out on 21st May. If you're in London, drop by and take a look.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Less is More

There's a dicey-looking restaurant down the road from me. The sort that offers 3 course dinners for £9.99. It bills itself as a Mexican/Irish/Italian place. Really.

For some reason known only to it's owners, it was called Robin Hood. This is Hammersmith, not Sherwood Forest we're talking about here, but, hey ho, maybe the owners had a thing about early Errol Flynn movies.

The other day I walked past, and they'd changed the name to Robin Hood Zorro. Everything else looked the same, but I guess they figured that if naming your restaurant after one mythical medieval freedom fighter was good, naming it after two was even better! I can't wait until they change the name to Robin Hood Zorro Don Quixote.

It's the same in the world of software. We're building out some apps, and there's a clamour for "more". More features, a change of name, funkier design. I've resisted this and drilled down to the need to just do what we are doing better.

So instead of adding Zorro to the restaurant name, maybe they should just focus on Mexican food. Or Irish. Or even Italian. Wait, what about Polish? Or Lithuanian...