Tag Archives: Webware

Adobe and “Cloud Computing”

Saw a few things about Adobe’s AIR today, including a New York Times piece describing the “Webtop” play. In that NYT piece, a mention was made of Adobe’s own Buzzword “online word-processor.” Tried it out and, if it’s a sign of things to come, there might be some cool stuff happening for the webware enthusiast.

Buzzword has some niceties over other “online word processors” like Zoho Writer and Google Docs, especially in terms of interface. It does feel right, which makes for a more pleasant writing experience.

One thing I quite like about Buzzword is the list management. It seems more efficient that what is available in desktop word processors (most notably, in Microsoft Word). As a fan of outliners, I think this could even be a deal-maker for me.

I just wonder why it is that nobody’s integrating all of these cloud computing/webware/online productivity apps in an actual workflow. No, not AppleWorks-style “integrated software.” But some cool way to bring content from one online app to another.


Free As In Beer: The Case for No-Cost Software

To summarize the situation:

  1. Most of the software for which I paid a fee, I don’t really use.
  2. Most of the software I really use, I haven’t paid a dime for.
  3. I really like no-cost software.
  4. You might want to call me “cheap” but, if you’re developing “consumer software,” you may need to pay attention to the way people like me think about software.

No, I’m not talking about piracy. Piracy is wrong on a very practical level (not to mention legal and moral issues). Piracy and anti-piracy protection are in a dynamic that I don’t particularly enjoy. In some ways, forms of piracy are “ruining it for everyone.” So this isn’t about pirated software.

I’m not talking about “Free/Libre/Open Source Software” (FLOSS) either. I tend to relate to some of the views held by advocates of “Free as in Speech” or “Open” developments but I’ve had issues with FLOSS projects, in the past. I will gladly support FLOSS in my own ways but, to be honest, I ended up losing interest in some of the most promising projects out there. Not saying they’re not worth it. After all, I do rely on many of those projects But in talking about “no-cost software,” I’m not talking about Free, Libre, or Open Source development. At least, not directly.

Basically, I was thinking about the complex equation which, for any computer user, determines the cash value of a software application. Most of the time, this equation is somehow skewed. And I end up frustrated when I pay for software and almost giddy when I find good no-cost software.

An old but representative example of my cost-software frustration: QuickTime Pro. I paid for it a number of years ago, in preparation for a fieldwork trip. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do, especially given the fact that I was going to manipulate media files. When QuickTime was updated, my license stopped working. I was basically never able to use the QuickTime Pro features. And while it’s not a huge amount of money, the frustration of having paid for something I really didn’t need left me surprisingly bitter. It was a bad decision at that time so I’m now less likely to buy software unless I really need it and I really know how I will use it.

There’s an interesting exception to my frustration with cost-software: OmniOutliner (OO). I paid for it and have used it extensively for years. When I was “forced” to switch to Windows XP, OO was possibly the piece of software I missed the most from Mac OS X. And as soon as I was able to come back to the Mac, it’s one of the first applications I installed. But, and this is probably an important indicator, I don’t really use it anymore. Not because it lacks features I found elsewhere. But because I’ve had to adapt my workflow to OO-less conditions. I still wish there were an excellent cross-platform outliner for my needs. And, no, Microsoft OneNote isn’t it.

Now, I may not be a typical user. If the term weren’t so self-aggrandizing, I’d probably call myself a “Power User.” And, as I keep saying, I am not a coder. Therefore, I’m neither the prototypical “end user” nor the stereotypical “code monkey.” I’m just someone spending inordinate amounts of time in front of computers.

One dimension of my computer behavior which probably does put me in a special niche is that I tend to like trying out new things. Even more specifically, I tend to get overly enthusiastic about computer technology to then become disillusioned by said technology. Call me a “dreamer,” if you will. Call me “naïve.” Actually, “you can call me anything you want.” Just don’t call me to sell me things. 😉

Speaking of pressure sales. In a way, if I had truckloads of money, I might be a good target for software sales. But I’d be the most demanding user ever. I’d require things to work exactly like I expect them to work. I’d be exactly what I never am in real life: a dictator.

So I’m better off as a user of no-cost software.

I still end up making feature requests, on occasion. Especially with Open Source and other open development projects. Some developers might think I’m just complaining as I’m not contributing to the code base or offering solutions to a specific usage problem. Eh.

Going back to no-cost software. The advantage isn’t really that we, users, spend less money on the software distribution itself. It’s that we don’t really need to select the perfect software solution. We can just make do with what we have. Which is a huge “value-add proposition” in terms of computer technology, as counter-intuitive as this may sound to some people.

To break down a few no-cost options.

  • Software that came with your computer. With an Eee PC, iPhone, XO, or Mac, it’s actually an important part of the complete computing experience. Sure, there are always ways to expand the software offering. But the included software may become a big part of the deal. After all, the possibilities are already endless. Especially if you have ubiquitous Internet access.
  • Software which comes through a volume license agreement. This often works for Microsoft software, at least at large educational institutions. Even if you don’t like it so much, you end up using Microsoft Office because you have it on your computer for free and it does most of the things you want to do.
  • Software coming with a plan or paid service. Including software given by ISPs. These tend not to be “worth it.” Yet the principle (or “business model,” depending on which end of the deal you’re on) isn’t so silly. You already pay for a plan of some kind, you might as well get everything you need from that plan. Nobody (not even AT&T) has done it yet in such a way that it would be to everyone’s advantage. But it’s worth a thought.
  • “Webware” and other online applications. Call it “cloud computing” if you will (it was a buzzphrase, a few days ago). And it changes a lot of things. Not only does it simplify things like backup and migration, but it often makes for a seamless computer experience. When it works really well, the browser effectively disappears and you just work in a comfortable environment where everything you need (content, tools) is “just there.” This category is growing rather rapidly at this point but many tech enthusiasts were predicting its success a number of years ago. Typical forecasting, I guess.
  • Light/demo versions. These are actually less common than they once were, especially in terms of feature differentiation. Sure, you may still play the first few levels of a game in demo version and some “express” or “lite” versions of software are still distributed for free as teaser versions of more complete software. But, like the shareware model, demo and light software may seem to have become much less prominent a part of the typical computer user’s life than just a few years ago.
  • Software coming from online services. I’m mostly thinking about Skype but it’s a software category which would include any program with a desktop component (a “download”) and an online component, typically involving some kind of individual account (free or paid). Part subscription model, part “Webware companion.” Most of Google’s software would qualify (Sketchup, Google Earth…). If the associated “retail software” were free, I wouldn’t hesitate to put WoW in this category.
  • Actual “freeware.” Much freeware could be included in other categories but there’s still an idea of a “freebie,” in software terms. Sometimes, said freeware is distributed in view of getting people’s attention. Sometimes the freeware is just the result of a developer “scratching her/his own itch.” Sometimes it comes from lapsed shareware or even lapsed commercial software. Sometimes it’s “donationware” disguised as freeware. But, if only because there’s a “freeware” category in most software catalogs, this type of no-cost software needs to be mentioned.
  • “Free/Libre/Open Source Software.” Sure, I said earlier this was not what I was really talking about. But that was then and this is now. 😉 Besides, some of the most useful pieces of software I use do come from Free Software or Open Source. Mozilla Firefox is probably the best example. But there are many other worthy programs out there, including BibDesk, TeXShop, and FreeCiv. Though, to be honest, Firefox and Flock are probably the ones I use the most.
  • Pirated software (aka “warez”). While software piracy can technically let some users avoid the cost of purchasing a piece of software, the concept is directly tied with commercial software licenses. (It’s probably not piracy if the software distribution is meant to be open.) Sure, pirates “subvert” the licensing system for commercial software. But the software category isn’t “no-cost.” To me, there’s even a kind of “transaction cost” involved in the piracy. So even if the legal and ethical issues weren’t enough to exclude pirated software from my list of no-cost software options, the very practicalities of piracy put pirated software in the costly column, not in the “no-cost” one.

With all but the last category, I end up with most (but not all) of the software solutions I need. In fact, there are ways in which I’m better served now with no-cost software than I have ever been with paid software. I should probably make a list of these, at some point, but I don’t feel like it.

I mostly felt like assessing my needs, as a computer user. And though there always are many things I wish I could do but currently can’t, I must admit that I don’t really see the need to pay for much software.

Still… What I feel I need, here, is the “ultimate device.” It could be handheld. But I’m mostly thinking about a way to get ideas into a computer-friendly format. A broad set of issues about a very basic thing.

The spark for this blog entry was a reflection about dictation software. Not only have I been interested in speech technology for quite a while but I still bet that speech (recognition/dictation and “text-to-speech”) can become the killer app. I just think that speech hasn’t “come true.” It’s there, some people use it, the societal acceptance for it is likely (given cellphone penetration most anywhere). But its moment hasn’t yet come.

No-cost “text-to-speech” (TTS) software solutions do exist but are rather impractical. In the mid-1990s, I spent fifteen months doing speech analysis for a TTS research project in Switzerland. One of the best periods in my life. Yet, my enthusiasm for current TTS systems has been dampened. I wish I could be passionate about TTS and other speech technology again. Maybe the reason I’m notis that we don’t have a “voice desktop,” yet. But, for this voice desktop (voicetop?) to happen, we need high quality, continuous speech recognition. IOW, we need a “personal dictation device.” So, my latest 2008 prediction: we will get a voice device (smartphone?) which adapts to our voices and does very efficient and very accurate transcription of our speech. (A correlated prediction: people will complain about speech technology for a while before getting used to the continuous stream of public soliloquy.)

Dictation software is typically quite costly and complicated. Most users don’t see a need for dictation software so they don’t see a need for speech technology in computing. Though I keep thinking that speech could improve my computing life, I’ve never purchased a speech processing package. Like OCR (which is also dominated by Nuance, these days) it seems to be the kind of thing which could be useful to everyone but ends up being limited to “vertical markets.” (As it so happens, I did end up being an OCR program at some point and kept hoping my life would improve as the result of being able to transform hardcopies into searchable files. But I almost never used OCR (so my frustration with cost-software continues).)

Ah, well…


How Can Google Beat Facebook?

It might not be so hard:

As I see it, the biggest shortcoming of social-networking sites is their inability to play well with others. Between MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tribe, Pownce, and the numerous also-rans, it seems as if maintaining an active presence at all of these sites could erode into becoming a full-time job. If Google can somehow create a means for all of these services to work together, and seamlessly interact with the Google family, then perhaps this is the killer app that people don’t even realize they’ve been waiting for. Google gives social networking another go | Media Sphere – Josh Wolf blogs about the new information age – CNET Blogs

Some might take issue at Wolf’s presumption. Many of us have realised in 1997 that the “killer app” for social networking services is for them to work together. But the point is incredibly important and needs to be made again and again.

Social Networking Services work when people connect through it. The most intricate “network effect” you can think of. For connections to work, existing social relationships and potential social relationships need to be represented in the SNS as easily as possible. What’s more, investing effort and time in building one’s network relates quite directly with the prospective life of SNS. Faced with the eventuality of losing all connections in a snap because everybody has gone to “the next thing,” the typical SNS user is wary. Given the impression that SNS links can survive the jump to “the next one” (say, via a simple “import” function), the typical SNS user is likely to use the SNS to its fullest potential. This is probably one of several reasons for the success of Facebook. And Google can certainly put something together which benefits from this principle.

Yeah, yeah, Wolf  was referring more specifically to the “synchronisation” of activities on different SNS or SNS-like systems. That’s an important aspect of the overall “SNS interoperability” issue. Especially if SNS are important parts of people’s lives. But I prefer to think about the whole picture.

Another thing which has been mentioned is the connection Google could make between SNS and its other tools. One approach would be to build more “social networking features” (beyond sharing) into its existing services. The other could be to integrate Google tools into SNS (say, top-notch Facebook applications). Taken together, these two approaches would greatly benefit both Google and the field of social networking in general.

All in all, what I could easily see would be a way for me to bring all my SNS “content” to a Google SNS, including existing links. From a Google SNS, I would be able to use different “social-enabled” tools from Google like the new Gmail, an improved version of Google Documents, and the Blogger blogging platform. Eventually, most of my online activities would be facilitated by Google but I would still be able to use non-Google tools as I wish.

There’s a few tools I’m already thinking about, which could make sense in this “Google-enabled social platform.” For one, the “ultimate social bookmarking tool” for which I’ve been building feature wishlists. Then, there’s the obvious need for diverse applications which can use a centralised online storage system. Or the browser integration possible with something like, I don’t know, the Google toolbar… 😉

Given my interest in educational technology, I can’t help but think about online systems for course management (like Moodle and Sakai). Probably too specific, but Google could do a wonderful job at it.

Many people are certainly thinking about advertisement, revenue-sharing, p2p for media files, and other Google-friendly concepts. These aren’t that important for me.

I can’t say that I have a very clear image of what Google’s involvement in the “social networking sphere” will look like. But I can easily start listing Google products and features which are desperately calling for integration in a social context: Scholar, Web History, Docs, Reader, Browser Sync, Gcal, Gmail, Notebook, News, Mobile, YouTube, Ride Finder, Blog Comments, Music Trends, University Search, MeasureMap, Groups, Alerts, Bookmarks…

Sometimes, I really wonder why a company like Google can’t “get its act together” in making everything it does fit in a simple platform. They have the experts, the money, the users. They just need to make it happen.

Ah, well…