The Meet-up is dead, long live

Auckland web developers meetup – 23/June/2011 is one of those many web services people flocked to enthusiastically a few years back when it first appeared on the virtual social landscape. I signed up for a bunch of meetup groups imagining my cloud community horizons expanding explosively and began mentally preparing to get along to events and actually meet people face-to-face.

People I had previously only read, not met as such.

The reality was, of course, that events came and went (to be fair the Meetup community in NZ is pretty small, and I don’t think anyone else in Hamilton NZ knows it exists) and I never actually got a long to a single meetup….. Not one.

Until last Thursday that is.

For the last few years a bunch of Auckland web developers and designers have been using to have gatherings every month or so, and it was one of these sessions I went to last week. This is no-back-of-the-pub gathering of a handful of socially awkward boffins (though they do adjourn to the pub after the meetup, a post-meetup-meetup if you will).

No, this is a popular enough event that numbers are capped using the RSVP system at meetup. Take last week for example, there were 180 web folks in attendance, and 220 had registered interest before the event.

Without going into the details of the three sessions (links to them follow) which by the way were all very useful and entertaining (two often incongruous elements of a tech talk), the thing I was most impressed by was the healthy number of people who were prepared to brave rush-hour Auckland traffic to get along to a venue they’ve never been to, to listen to and mix and mingle with folks they may have never met.

OK so the free Pizza and Epic beer probably helped (thank you Orion Heath)

The other thing that tickled my fancy was geek-superstar Mozilla hacker Robert O’Callahan doing an awesome slides-optional presentation where he lost connectivity and talked for about 20mins with a “Server not found” error on the monitor behind him. Didn’t matter squat, he couldn’t have cared less, but sure looked funny thinking about it now.

Anyway, a big virtual-ups to the awesomely funny and larger than life John Ballinger (you can pay me later big fellah) and KarlVR and anyone else who’s involved in organising these things. Punters don’t appreciate how much effort goes into pulling something like this off on a semi-regular basis, especially when its a not-for-profit activity, and a fairly narrow slice of the community.

I’m all for the social web, but you really can’t beat face-to-face. I’m so relieved other people still see value in it too. See you at the next one.


What is the new Workspace?

Photo by Michael Cardus. used under CC licenceThe Cisco Collaboration Community hosted another live chat via Twitter today as part of the series of open discussions about collaboration and unified communications. This latest session was focused on “new collaborative workspaces, how they’re effecting the way we work, and the key technologies that are driving these changes”

Twitter performance seemed a little slow today (ok, so when isnt it :) so the lag between responses made the experience more disconnected than usual. An interesting conversation developed nonetheless amongst a mix of Cisco and independent contributors. The transcript of the session will be archived soon but the posts themselves are available now via a search on the #CollabChat tag at Twitter.

Rather than reproduce the conversation I’ll stick to including my own reflections on the discussion and the changing workspace:

Enterprises and their solutions have often rubber-stamped physical and virtual forms of workplace interaction amongst teams, have set boundaries, defined policies, rules and roles, sandboxes and security, times for meetings and formats for content and communication.

Those legacy features may be desirable in regulated, sensitive or corporate environments but a big challenge for today’s workspace is we now have ever increasing opportunities to participate in diverse and distributed virtual teams and projects, and to use services and resources that may exist outside the corporate firewall. Workspace members come and go, their patterns of work, availability and timezones are varied, the tools or resources they use, content and tasks they perform and collaborate on are increasingly diverse.

As a member of a virtualised team an individual may and should be able to view their workspace differently to the way others see or make contact with theirs. They each focus on different requirements, and contribute in different ways. The workspace may be addressable (say via a URL or such like, thanks @LLiu) but it will be distinctive and personalised, and temporal.

The workspace is multiple people, one or more places, multiple resources and devices, interacting at various times. Documents, video, voice, meetings, messaging, asynchronously or synchronously etc etc. As @MikeGotta mentioned the modern workspace landscape is surely challenging the desktop metaphor we are accustomed to.

We need IT to bridge across the entities, times and locations, to support us as we interact with and contribute to the workspace outcomes.

Various technologies come and go, some stay, some outlive their welcome. Email, document and content managements systems, portals, blogs, forums, wikis, virtual worlds etc. A best of breed of any one may be great for many workspace requirements but certainly not for all. Experiments like GoogleWave offered a lot but possibly overwhelmed the user with choice and direction.

Telepresence in its various forms, desktop sharing and conferencing, and recording and streaming of audio, video or other captured activity are IT functions that already support us with live face to face or time-shifted asycnhronous participation in distributed teams and workspaces. Other tools like SocialMiner from Cisco can play an interesting role and reach out to open channels and provide clues about disconnected conversations on a topic related to your workspace activities.

The challenge for the workspace of today and tomorrow and the tools used within it is ensuring sure these tools are relevant to the individual, the team and their activities. To present them and be flexible in applying them in various contexts. To be innovative and malleable to support changing demands, and inter-operate with other emerging platforms and standards. And importantly, not overwhelm the user with choice or features, yet provide the functionality they desire when they need it.

Should be easy right? :-)

A simmers dream come true – Jumpseat ride in an Air New Zealand 737

I’ve just figuratively come back down to earth after what to me was the ultimate boys own adventure. A few weeks ago now I got to take a daytime jump-seat ride from Auckland to Queenstown return in an Air New Zealand 737. Yes, for those that know I’m a simmer, this time it was a real live airplane!

I’d gotten to know the skipper recently and he generously offered to get me on-board under the cockpit familiarisation program. (please no Airplane movie quotes about grown men naked) It took a few weeks to organise the paperwork, involving a security/background check and the help and support of other staff at the airline, and next thing I knew my tickets arrived by email and we were all go.

Being a flight-sim junkie and a Boeing fan in particular to say i was stoked to get to ride in the pointy end of a 737-300 (my personal favorite) would be the understatement of the millennium. Instructions arrived for where and when to meet, I turned up on time for one of the first times in my life, then we were through the security gate (skipping the queue of course) and into the briefing room for prep for the flight.

Was fascinating to sit in on the flight preparation process being a fly on the wall as the guys worked diligently through fuel, passenger and freight loading, weather conditions and forecast, and how they would affect alternate airport selection. At the time of the flight we’d just had a non-stop week long storm all over the country and the flights were to be right in the middle of it. Miraculously winds seemed to calm a little on the morning of the flight, and you’d hardly know it was still blowing during push back, taxi, takeoff and climb out to the south.

The skipper politely but firmly asked for a quiet cockpit below 10,000’ on departure and the same when on approach so I did my best to stick to the plan and bite my tongue, sitting quietly taking it all in with a huge and no doubt stupid looking grin across my face. Taking off is a buzz back in the cabin anyway right but it’s a whole different perspective and thrill from the cockpit. We were relatively heavy with a full passenger load and enough fuel to return to the North Island if necessary but even so the sporty 737 was up and away in no time.

Cloud was blanketing the Auckland approach area at about 9,000’ so soon after breaking off the LENGU1A departure on runway 23L the skipper spotted a 737-sized hole in the cover which we slipped gracefully through (for passenger comfort of course) to a lovely clear blue expanse of sky above which we remained in till cruise and all the way down the west coast of both Islands.

Though we were heading into a brisk sou’wester, and had a fierce jet-stream below at one point, we made pretty good time tracking the upper airways to pass near New Plymouth, to the west of Nelson then down over the southern alps for a top of descent near Mt Riley.

As we passed the northern tip of the South Island the guys pointed out an approaching aircraft on the TCAS traffic warning system. A few moments later we spotted the company 733 on a parallel track 1000’ above us heading back in the opposite direction to Auckland. It arced silently by in the distance with the morning sun glimmering off the hull, vanishing out of view to the north as quickly as it had appeared.

I was able to listen along to ATC radio comms via the jump-seat headset as the crew were passed from Auckland departures, tower and approach then the various regional Christchurch control sectors as we headed south, and finally to Queenstown tower on approach there.

queenstown approach

The approach into Queenstown was via the rather technical RNAV 23Z approach which passes over Cromwell then weaves and winds along the Kawarau gorge descending gently along the way until finals for Queenstown. It’s a spectacular approach as a passenger as for much of it you are looking at the tops of mountains that are above you as the aircraft is descending along the gorge. From the cockpit the view was simply amazing. I think I just sat there mouth open or grinning like a schoolboy for most of it. It sure is a tough day at the office for these guys when the weathers like that.

Got to learn a lot from the crew about the RNAV capability (this approach cannot be hand-flown) and the limitations and history of the system. Very cool stuff which saves a huge number of missed approaches when operating in reduced visibility conditions at Queenstown. On this day however there were few clouds and very scattered, much to the skippers dismay, I’m sure he was hoping it would clag in to give me an impression of the feel and tension of flying a low visibility approach in such hostile terrain.

On the ground in Queenstown I also got to go on the walk-around inspection with the first officer wearing one of those super fashionable fluro-vests. The tarmac was warm, the air was full of the smell of jet fuel, the APU was still roaring at the back of the aircraft, and the aircraft surfaces glistening in the bright central Otago sunshine, which all meant it was complete and fantastic sensory overload, and another nice touch on the whole experience. I did my best to listen in as the F/O explained the elements and states he was looking for, and did lots of head-nodding and pretending to look like I knew what he was talking about.

After a slight delay with refueling we were back in the seat, paperwork signed off, security doors closed, passengers in place, and we were pushing back for the start-up and return to Auckland. Takeoff from QN was even sprightlier than before with engines uprated a little and packs off due to heavy load and local environment. The 737 leapt into the air and climbed purposefully out to the west up and over Frankton then turning on the climb around Kelvin Heights to double back over the airfield before joining the track back to the North Island.

737 cockpit

The return leg was another dream experience for me, getting to watch out for other procedures I’d missed on the way down, listening in on the ATC conversations a little more intently, and to hear a little more from the guys about their chosen career, their flying histories, impact on lifestyle and family and their near term prospects given the imminent retirement of the 737 airframe and movement of staff to the A320 platform.

Being the simming uber-nerd that I am I kept the guys busy with questions and luckily for me they were more than happy to answer, and then some. Was thrilled to discover the panels are very well modeled in the simulator as compared to the real thing so was great to see some familiar processes going on, and to learn as much as I could about some others in the 1:45 or so of flight time per leg.

I got so much out of the experience its hard to know what and how much to write about it so I figure I’ll keep it pretty brief. I have to acknowledge the obvious though, that it was a huge privilege to get to fly these two legs with the crew. In these days of heightened security, and time-poor and competitive professional and service demands there really aren’t many opportunities like this available now.

To the crew that hosted me on the day, your guys are awesome!. Kiwis are well served by our national airline, should be proud of how well if operates and fares in the modern age of global airline competition, and if you two are anything to go by we’re in bloody great hands when we do choose to fly. Thanks so much guys.

Inter-species Skyping

Glamour Puss Last weekend Kym decided enough was enough and she would have to procure her own Laptop seeing as she wasn’t having much luck getting keyboard time on our communal desktop. So off to town we went with credit-card in hand, in to Smiths Dicks to browse the dozens of laptops on offer, eventually striking up a conversation with an informative-but-too-not-pushy salesman who ended up flogging us an entry level ASUS (or ANUS as Kym calls it) machine.

Back home with the box, Kym unpacked it carefully, I kept a safe distance as I was on no uncertain terms banned from any contact with said device. The machine was fired up, and I watched with trepidation as Vista appeared on the screen and began to engrain itself on the silicon and liquid crystal. Some casual input from me over Kym’s shoulder eventually got HER laptop onto our home network and out onto the Internet.

The Lappy was mostly provisioned with the tools Kym is going to need out of the box, and the only thing I dared suggest I might install was a copy of Skype. This was agreed to with a look of suspicion, but I was not to install anything else, and not until the new owner had taken some time to play with the new toy.

So it was a couple of days later I thought I’d take advantage of her Ladyships absence to install Skype. Plugged in my USB stick, copied the installer over, setup a profile for her, and made a test call to the automated Skype service. I wanted to check out the built-in web camera and although I could make a call to the upstairs desktop but there’d be no one on the other end and only other living creature in the house was the Cat so how would that work……. unless…. I called the Cat…

Yes that was it, tilt the laptop screen down so the web cam was aimed at the cat on the sofa, place a call to my account logged in on the desktop upstairs, run upstairs and answer it and see if the cat appears. Which of course he did. So much for the visual image but how about some actual communication???

Our cat Kola is anti-social at the best of times but he does respond to a mouse-like squeak sound that I make by drawing air in between pursed lips, so I let rip with this squeeky sound over the Skype connection. He immediately sat bolt up-right on the sofa with a startled look on his face, glanced nervously around the room, looked suspiciously at the laptop, then settled back down on the sofa.

I figured its gotta be worth repeating the “squeak” just to make sure it wasn’t a one-off. Sure enough Kola responded instantly, but this time looked straight at the laptop, he knew it was coming from the machine, and he didn’t like it. By this stage I’m laughing to myself in the office upstairs, delighted that I had achieved a crude form of inter-species Skype communication. Now all I have to do is train him to place a call.

Smoking the RSS pipe

rss-icons.jpg One of my colleagues forwarded me a great blog post by Tony Hirst from last year which wrapped up important features and opportunities for use of RSS as a sort of call to arms, or manifesto as Tony refers to it. The post got me thinking about one particular aspect of RSS talk that winds me up. The evangelisation by some (not Tony) and its use and promotion in areas that aren’t necessarily appropriate.

There seems to be a never-ending supply of hype around empowering users through shiny wee orange buttons linking to RSS feeds, but efforts to harness the technology really are better directed towards machine-machine/publishing system/CMS integration, syndication and mash-up development.

In other words, behind the scenes magik happening without user involvement or awareness. Hell, its hard enough to convince some developers that they should RSS-enable services and content let alone educate less web savvy end-users about its benefits.

Now I don’t want you to get the wrong impression (well that’s not true, I don’t care) coz I am a fan of RSS and other uses of XML or structured data to exposure reusable content and data, and have been actively integrating RSS generation and consumption in tools I work on for many years now. Jesus, I was even a fan-boy of Dave Winer and user of his tools (Radio & Frontier) for many years.

But one thing that bugs me about RSS is the suggestion that it’s of real direct conscious use to end-users and that we must educate them on this matter, but is this really the case?

In browser subscriptions? Nope.

Your average casual web user just doesn’t GET what those pretty orange icons are and really doesn’t care much for optimising their news reading activity. In fact for many people I’m sure they enjoy the serendipity of wandering about from one web site to another, who know’s what you’ll read next. I don’t believe information overload is something every web user suffers from. What about GoogleReader and Bloglines?. Come on, lets be honest, other than web-geeks and news-addicts no one is really taking the time to learn how to use those tools effectively. Browser support for auto-discovery though prominent in the UI is still the domain of expert consumers.

User defined channels? Nope.

User driven customisation of news portal content failed to capture a market in the 90′s and it really isn’t any different now despite technologies like RSS? Ongoing positive-action required to manage those channels is as unlikely as creating them in the 1st place, and the resulting decay and diminishing value of those customised views results in users abandoning the mechanism. Personalisation is another matter of course and some sites get this right on occasion.

Trusted relationships? Nope.

As a consumer I may happen to trust my local newspaper, or, or stuff that magically appears on, but I don’t think we should overestimate the value Joe-average puts on relationships with content providers. Look at how unquestionably most folks consume the stuff big-media outlets like Fox, MSNBC, Sky are generating for eye-balls across the globe.

User publishing? Yes, to a degree.

A tiny fraction of the population actively publish blogs and other web content, a slightly larger volume may read them. Fortunately none of these folks need to directly interact with or manage RSS as it is generally auto-generated. The beauty of these RSS resources is in the automated indexing and relationship building that goes on behind the scenes.

Syndication? Yes! Mash-ups? Yes! A glue between disparate publishing mechanisms? Yes!

These back-end uses demonstrate the real power of RSS. Its no coincidence one of the ‘S’ in RSS stands for SYNDICATION. Integrating resources and adding value on behalf of the user to reflect their personal preferences, history or relationships is more likely than direct-action taken by users to manage RSS and messy URLs themselves.

RSS for everything? Definitely not.

The early schism in the community over evolution of the original relatively simple RSS format into the RDF based one, and resulting tit-for-tat nonsense as features and elements were added to subsequent releases, and finally the arrival of the likes of ATOM on the scene no doubt put off a heap of developers committing to using RSS in any form until there was some stability. These days there are RSS parsers capable of handling the variations for every development platform. It’s stating the obvious I know but RSS isn’t the only means of facilitating web interoperability, trying to make it do too much is one reason for the mess of overlapping specs that RSS became. Invent your own schema for your dedicated purpose, publish it, share it, and others can bloody well Transform it with XSLT if they dont like it.

The various forms of RSS are all great enabling technologies but the only organic consumers who actually benefit from direct use or engagement with RSS are still power web users and readers. In my opinion we are better of not trying to introduce it to the end-user vocabulary at all.

Please, lets encourage developers to build structured interfaces into their apps and services so we can build sexy mash-ups with it, but as far as end-users are concerned lets all just pretend RSS doesn’t really exist. But don’t tell Dave Winer I asked you to do so.