Panlibus Blog

Archive for August, 2005

WebOS – Joining a few more dots

There has been over the last few weeks some thoughts forming out of my mist around delivering useful functionality to where it is needed which has been crystallized a bit by Jason Kottke’s excellent posting GoogleOS? YahooOS? MozillaOS? WebOS?. A highly recommended read.

So this is my best guess as to how an “operating system” based on the Web (which I will refer to as “WebOS”) will work. There are three main parts to the system:

  • The Web browser (along with other browser-ish applications like Konfabulator) becomes the primary application interface through which the user views content, performs services, and manages data on their local machine and on the Web, often without even knowing the difference. Something like Firefox, Safari, or IE…ideally browser agnostic.
  • Web applications of the sort we’re all familiar with: Gmail, Flickr, and Bloglines, as well as other applications that are making the Web an ever richer environment for getting stuff done. (And ideally all Ajaxed up to provide an experience closer to that of traditional desktop apps.)
  • A local Web server to handle the data delivery and content display from the local machine to the browser. This local server will likely be highly optimized for its task, but would be capable of running locally installed Web applications (e.g. a local copy of Gmail and all its associated data).

That’s it. Aside from the browser and the Web server, applications will be written for the WebOS and won’t be specific to Windows, OS X, or Linux. This is also completely feasible, I think, for organizations like Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, or the Mozilla Foundation to make happen (more on this below).

There has been various initiatives to deliver ‘useful gizzmos’ to the user over the last couple of years or so. Yahoo Toolbar, Bookmarklets, Google Toolbar, and many other toolbars. PearlyKing2.jpg

If your browser is anything like mine [after the kids have been at it] the top of it has more buttons on it than you would find at a Pearly King convention!

Then we have the desktop add-ins like the MSN Toolbar, Google’s Sidebar, Konfabulator, etc. Apart from the usefulness of desktop search [which IMHO would be wonderful if it was a combination of Windows Desktop and Google Desktop's integration with the web in general and my browser history in particular] how really useful are the gizzmos that they all [a massive generalisation] provide. How many weather feeds do you need telling you that it is raining to convince you that the sunshine outside the window is a figment of your imagination!

So why is it that so much promise is not being realised? Well, to pinch a Web marketing mantra, most of the value is in the long-tail and its not being realised.

Let me explain. Currently there are two basic approaches to deliver new web-integrated functionality on to the desktop with the tools/platforms that are around.

Way one – The Google Sidebar way – A gizzmo on this platform has full access to the Windows subsystem, so it is comparatively easy to interact with other applications on the desktop. All you have to do to build one is to whip out your handy copy of Visual Studio and start coding away. Interaction with browser content may not be too easy, but a good Visual Studio guy should be up to it. All users need is to download the Sidebar and your plug-in.

Way two – The Greasemonkey way – A gizzmo on this platform has full access to what the [Firefox] browser is up to, and via AJAX calls access to services around the planet. All you have to do to build one is whip out you handy copy of Notepad or similar and start coding away in Javascript. No access to what’s going on on the desktop but powerful inside the confines of the browser. All users need is to be running Firefox and have installed the Greasemonkey extension.

There are a couple of hybrids around also. Plain old Javascript with AJAX embeded in a web page – a bit like Greasemonkey but due to security issues this method is restricted in what is possible. Still the user has only to view a page to get the value add. And then there is Konfabulator, an easily accessible Javascript engine, and Widget deployment platform, but with little desktop integration and even less browser integration.

One thing is very clear, if the cost of entry to a community is the price of a copy of Visual Studio and the understanding of how to use it, you are going to get far fewer people participating than you would if all they need is a simple text editor and a Javascript book.

So where do Jason’s thoughts help? He envisages his WebOS providing on/off-line capability with suitable local web services feeding locally stored content in to an enriched AJAX environment where the browser window becomes the desktop. This would deliver a great environment in to which a long tail of developers, regardless of if they use VS or Notepad as their IDE, to add their value to the world.

This won’t happen overnight though, there will be some false dawns on the way. For me the ‘killer’ step on this road would be for something like Sidebar to deliver an embedded Javvascript engine and [separate] browser window. This could leverage the long-tail of the developer comunity [currently hitting the Konfabulator Forums with hundreds of postings a day] on top of a simply downloaded gizzmo platform from a well known widely trusted by the users brand.

Have a change from books – Borrow a Person!

Malmo Library in Sweden have launched an unusual initiative to help people understand and face [to face] their prejudices.

BBC Radio4′s PM programme had a report on it yesterday with an interview witha Malmo librarian. Can’t find a transcript of that, but it was also covered ahead of the event by The Australian.

The Living Library project will enable people to come face-to-face with their prejudices in the hopes of altering their preconceived notions, Ulla Brohed of the Malmo Library in southern Sweden said.

“You sometimes hear people’s prejudices and you realise that they are just uninformed,” she said.

This weekend, nine people, including a homosexual, an imam, a journalist, a Muslim woman and a gypsy, will be available at the Malmo Library for members of the public to “borrow” for a 45 minute conversation in the library’s outdoor cafe.

Sounds from the PM interview that it was a great success.

Food for thought and really ‘thinking out of the box’ as to acquiring unusual materials for people to borrow. – Now if we could only get the books to take a lead from these new items an learn how to return themselves to the shelves, life would be so much simpler!

Online library overwhelmed before opening time

BBC News reports on My Book Your Book, an initiative to launch an online book sharing scheme which has found pre-launch interest has been beyond the wildest dreams of its founder.

All of its “founder members” will be able to access thousands of paperback novels – provided they donate 10 books each to the co-operative scheme.

“I always thought it would work, but I’m surprised how quickly it’s taken off,” Peter Baillie told BBC News

It will be interesting to see how it progresses over the months, and what lessons are in it for the people with buildings full of shelves, and reading rooms and other traditional accessories to book lending.

In the wars again

We all remember The Unix Wars and the Linux Wars. There were of course the Browser Wars, which some say reemerged with FireFox as Browser Wars II.

Over the last few days I have started to get the feeling that there may well be the sound of troops massing just over the ridge again. Actually two ridges.

The first of these local skirmishes, which could turn in to a bit of a battle, is around the territory of RSS. As I blogged the other day, the father of RSS Dave Winer is upset by Microsoft’s decision to call RSS Feeds Web Feeds in IE 7. This pot has now been stirred by the announcement of RSS 3.0.

The other front that could open up is between web site publishers who believe that their content and its layout should be sacrosanct and not touched [by any gizmo on a user's desktop or in their browser] and the Greasemonkeys.

The Firefox plug-in Greasemonkey, and its IE equivalent Turnabout, have up until now been impossible to stop by the web site publishers. But as I report on the Silkworm Blog, there has been discovered a way to drop in a Gunk script to your web pages to degreasemonkey them. This has been discovered by the community themselves and is already causing comments like “I’d rather just find a way to end the war before it starts.” to appear on their mailing lists. Once this gets in to the wild it could easily resurrect the debates that formed around Microsoft’s SmartTags and Google’s autolink.

Either of these could ignite in to a full war, or may be not. Whatever, its always interesting to watch and marvel at the passion people exhibit when defending their territory.

RSS 3.0 – Another ‘Feed’ Standard – needed or not

Hot on the heels of various Winer-ings about the corporates hijacking RSS for themselves with the IE7 Beta having the cheek to start calling RSS Feeds ‘Web Feeds‘, we have the launch of RSS 3.0.

Great a new standard for RSS! or is it? do we need it? what is the relevance to/with Atom?

Taking a brief look it seems that RSS3.0 is a one man initiative by Jonathan Avidan.

I will be interested in Dave Winer’s thoughts on this. Richard MacManus doesn’t exactly put his full support behind it, either.

Still, if the entry of 3.0 in to the 2.0/1.0-RDF/Atom debate kicks of another war, it will add even more incentive to the people supporting Microsoft in rising above the technicalities and just calling them vanilla Web Feeds, whilst hopefully supporting all of them under the one button.

Gunk script worrying the Greasemonkeys

The Greasemonkey community having just got over its recent security scare is now experiencing traffic on its mailing list because they have identified a simple bit of JavaScript which effectively stops a Greasemonkey script from modifying the display of a web page.

A few weeks back it was reported that Greasemonkey that oh so useful Firefox Extension that lets you run Javascript on top of any web page, could also be misused to effectively expose the contents of you PC’s disk to the world. Panic over! Greasemonkey version 0.5 (still in beta) plugs the security holes.

When I was a teenager [what now feels eons ago] fixing my own car engines on my parents drive, I could only start work if I had a can of a wonderful product called Gunk on the shelf. Invariably when I’d finished major under the hood surgery there would be significant amounts of oil & grease on the paving below the car. Bring on the Gunk, and the driveway would be degreased in no time.

The concern of the current traffic on the Greasemonkey mailing list is that they have appeared to have discovered the JavaScript equivalent of Gunk. Place the few lines of code in the correct place on your web page and it will detect any changes that a Greasemonkey script makes to the page. It then automatically reverses those changes; degreasemonkeying the page!

Having found Greasemonkey such a valuable tool, I hope they discover a Gunk Script antidote soon. It would a bit of a blow to the AJAX/Remixing revolution if it became a standard paranoid action for web site designers to drop in a gunk script in to every page to prevent remixing of their content.

A Web Site or a Web Service?

If having read the title of this you are asking yourself “What’s the difference?“, you really need to read Paul Miller’s CIE Thoughts posting Rethinking models of Web ‘service’ delivery.

It references an interesting post by Richard Akerman, who in turn references an earlier post by Paul. The combination of all three, gives a good insight in to why many need to rethink how they deliver their data to their eventual users. ‘Putting up a web site’ is too simple an answer.

The RSS naming wars look to be over almost before they started!

Really Simple what?… or is it.. Rich Site something? Hands up those of you who’ve had a bit of evangelism to the uninitiated about the wonders of RSS Feeds thrown off course by a pointless explanation about what the letters ‘R’, ‘R’, & ‘S’ stand for! So you get over that hurdle only to fall in to the pot-hole of if its called RSS why does the orange buttons you need to click, have XML written on them?

Still its been fine up to now as RSS isn’t main-stream yet. Trouble is in a blink of an eye it will be. An that eye blink is called IE7. As soon as that starts rolling out in an anonymous Windows Update in a few months time, RSS capability will be on practically every personal, and many corporate desktops on the planet in short order.

Whatever criticisms people may level at Microsoft, you can’t knock their desire to make the adoption of new functionality by the masses as simple as possible. So you can imagine the initial conversations in the Microsoft usability labs when the technical wizards announced that this wonderful new feature was called RSS, and RSS stands for…… feed_dialog_box.jpgIt’s therefore not a shock to discover that the feature has been christened ‘Web Feeds’ [shortened to just 'Feeds' on buttons etc.] in the beta release of IE7.

This simple move triggered quite a reaction from Dave Winer, a father of RSS, who sees a conspiracy between Microsoft, Google [who are also calling them Feeds in their Google News announcement] to hijack the standard by calling it something else.

IMHO, Dave can be more than proud for the dramatic difference he has already made to people’s lives with RSS, but he is being a bit too precious about his charge as it starts to make its way in the big wide world.

Richard MacManus in his Feeds is the new RSS posting details some of the saga and quite rightly in my opinion concludes “So sorry Dave and Robert, but it looks like the tide has turned. All 3 bigco’s are using ‘feeds’ and the majority of people that commented on my post are too. The people have spoken – feeds is it.“.

Whilst on the subject of Feeds, I recommend the RSS4Lib Blog all about Innovative ways libraries use RSS . The latest posting RSS Creator details the work by Dave Walker at the Cal State San Marcos library using the XML API of his Metalib installation to create feeds for all the electronic journals that are accessible via their SFX URL Resolver. I have been preaching for many months now that if you provide an XML API [just like Amazon AWS], or Web Service, you provide the ability for others to innovate in ways you never envisaged. Here is yet another example.

So why isn’t Creative Commons suitable for Software

When I first skimmed through Creative Commons a few months back my initial thought was ‘great, at last simple sensible licencing that seems to be getting lots of buy-in‘ and naturally assumed that it was as suitable for software as any other work. But as we all know skimming things, and assumptions can be dangerous. Nevertheless I was more than a little surprised when the penny dropped that Creative Commons is deemed appropriate licensing for practically any type of creative work except software.

Still life goes on, and even though I’d discounted it as a licensing approach for software, it is very relevant for information and data that can be accessed, distributed, and mixed by software and services that will constitute the Silkworm Platform.

Then OCLC’s Thom Hickey in his Blog Outgoing posted an entry on Open Source Software licenses to which Rikhei commented that Creative Commons might be worth a look in Thom’s search for appropriate licensing for OCLC Open Source software. Thom says in reference to the OSI approved Open Source license that OCLC drew up a couple of yers back “The closer I read it, the less I understand it, and most people that want to use our software come up with some questions, most of which are hard to answer

This prompted me to take another look at Creative Commons, and beyond their bland answer to the Can I use a Creative Commons license for software? FAQ.

I see from a thread on their mailing lists that the Debian Projet have also looked at this and although the have problems with their compatibility with CC’s NonComercial licenses they appear to be fairly close to the CC Attribution and Attribution-ShareAlike licenses.

Thom points out in his comments, that software is a bit different as you need to take in to account things like indemnification. That’s true but as the mixing of information becomes more widespread it will not be long before indemnification against the ramifications of the use of incorrect information will become an issue.

I still believe that it would not be that difficult to produce a software CC license option, and to quote Thom again It would be nice to have something like Creative Commons, so you could point to a ‘non-commercial with attribution license’ that everyone would understand. Thats the key, as most people don’t understand licensing.

What’s in name 2.0

Tim Bray in his posting Not 2.0 says how much he has “come to dislike this ‘Web 2.0′ microslogan. It’s not only vacuous marketing hype, it can’t possibly be right

He then goes on to discuss how this thing labeled ‘Web 2.0′ should be at version 3.0+, at least, as in qualitative changes in Web experience we are already on 3.0, with the Google happening being 1.0, or there again didn’t Usenet start it all.

I’m not going to dissolve into a massive, and pointless, debate about which Internet epoch was which, and which of those is/was significant enough to kick the version number up by a major or a minor digit, no matter how much ‘wind-up style’ fun that would be. [Suffice to say, as Usenet preceded the browser, could it be considered to be a version of the Web? - OK I'll stop now ;-}]

I think the real point is that this thing labeled ‘Web 2.0′ is significant enough to warrant a label and to attract attention [and of course the inevitable vacuous marketing hype]. If someone had labeled it ‘Elephant-dung 1.0′ it still would be as significant.

Because we haven’t had anything that feels like a gear change in the Web world for a while, Web 2.0 is as good a label as any. May be something like ‘Web new Vista’ [pun intended] would have been better.

Tim finishes by saying “But most times, the whole thing still feels like a shaky early beta to me“. Well so it should, because it still is. Back in 1995 coding my first web interface to an application [For the historically interested I was using Unix CGI scripts behind a CERN server to be viewed in a Mosaic browser - Ahhh, those were the days!] it also felt like shaky early beta, because it was.

1995 to me was the start of Web 1.0, now look where that has taken us. I predict that we will look back on 2005 from 5-10 years in the future and coment on how naive we were with our unambitious predictions of what Web 2.0 will lead us to.