Horse before the Cart

The release of Google’s new “Google Apps for your Domain” program is an interesting business move, and I can see more clearly now how Google is making inroads into territory that has traditionally belonged to Microsoft. GAfyD offers email, calendar, chat and a webpage designer – all for free – but enables organisations to rebadge these apps with their own domain and graphics. All you need to do is edit the MX records for any domain you might own, telling it to reroute the mail requests through to Google’s Gmail servers. End result is the abilty to have become a defacto Gmail service. Same goes for the calendar and chat… runs in your own domain but is hosted by Google.

My first thought was to register for my school… the thought of having 1000 student email accounts hosted offsite, with 2Gb of storage space each, complete with calendar, webspace and chat, all at no cost, seemed to good of an option to pass up. So I registered, changed the MX records, added a custom graphic to replace the Gmail one, and sure enough it all works exactly as advertised.

Next step was to ask the school to look at this as a serious option for student mail. The alternative would be to host an Exchange server ourselves, providing infrastructure, storage and backup for 1000 mail accounts. I know which is less work.

Seems I was a few days too late though. The school had just committed to buying a new server expressly to host student email, so the GAfyD program, despite its free pricetag and simple implementation, is on hold for now as we try to go it alone and host the mail services ourselves. Sure there are some advantages to hosting the mail ourselves such as Active Directory integration, fine control over content, filtering, etc, but it sure does create a lot more work. I’m undecided as to the trade off and which would have been a better path to take.

But it did cause me to think about the need to supply student email, mainly when I asked the question “what sort of things will they be doing with their email account?” It wasn’t meant as a facetious question… I could not survive without access to email, and I think every student should have an school email account of their own. My reservation revolves around the idea that I would like to think that the other teachers should have a clear idea of what they plan to do with students via email. I doubt that many are fully prepared for the onslaught on mail volume that can be created when each student has an email address and actually uses it to submit work, ask questions, clarify issues, etc. The volume of mail will increase exponentially… say you teach 5 classes of 25 kids, thats 125 kids. If they all use email effectively to send, reply, dialog with teachers, then that’s an awful lot of mail that starts to flow into the inboxes of teachers that previously thought getting 3 emails a day was a big deal. For those of use used to getting high volume mail its no big problem, but for those not used to it… I can hear the complaints now…

With the huge boom in Web 2.0 technologies, sometimes called the read/write Web, email is not the critical tool that it once was, even a few years ago. The explosion of educational use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, forums, etc, changes things somewhat. These things all offer the same sort of publicly accessible interactions that email only provides on a private level, making plain old email a little redundant. Email is still important, but not as important as it once was. In an educational setting, if I had to chose between giving each student an email address or giving each student access to a blog or a wiki, I think I would be going for the latter option.

The point is that providing an email account for each student is a relatively small first step. It’s what they then do with that email account that really matters, and in the case of my school I still don’t think we have a clear idea of just how we plan to use email effectively to enhance real learning. It’s like being given a hammer and some nails but not having any idea of what you might make with them.

The Anatomy of a Good Decision

I started using a personal computer in 1982. It’s now 2006, and for the majority of the past 24 years I’ve used computers running some version of Microsoft Windows. My first experience with Windows started with version 3.0, then 3.1, WfW, 95, 98, 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP. On the server side I’ve used Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Server 2003. I have also been a Microsoft Office trainer, hold a Microsft Office Specialist certification and have even been a technical writer for Microsoft. Professionally, I’m currently responsible for managing a Windows network that encompasses 6 Windows servers and around 300 Windows XP workstations. You could say that I have invested a good deal of time and energy into Microsoft products over the years.

So when the time came recently to buy myself a new computer, it may seem surprising that I bought myself a Mac. Yes, a Mac.

It’s not my first Apple. I started my love affair with personal computers on an old Apple IIe, back in the day when if you wanted your computer to do anything useful you often had to write the software yourself. I also had an old Mac SE30 that I used to just love working with, and even an LC575 back in the old System 7 days. But that was ages ago, and I’ve pretty been in a Windows world now for the past 15 or so years.

So, after all this time, why another Mac? Because when the time came to fork out the hard earned cash to by a new machine I wanted to best computer I could get. I wanted great performance, rock solid stability and value for money. Do the research and you will probably come to the same conclusion. For me, it had to be a Mac.

The decision to switch was not taken lightly. I put a lot of thought into my decision to be a “Switcher”, as Apple calls us. I had a great deal invested into the Windows platform, both time and money. All of my software was for Windows, all of my expertise was in Windows, and to be honest, I was comfortable in Windows.

What I wasn’t comfortable with was the endless stream of viruses and malware that seemed to be attacking the Windows platform on an almost daily basis. I wasn’t comfortable with the inordinate amount of time I seemed to be spending maintaining my computer just I could use it to be “productive”. I wasn’t too comfortable with the way every Windows machine I ever used just seemed to slow down over time, to become more and more sluggish until it ground to a useless halt and the only solution was to reinstall the OS. I was very uncomfortable with system freezes, application crashes, and a system that clearly was not able to cope with the not-unreasonable demands I was expecting from it.

There is an old joke about a dog laying on a wooden verandah floor, howling in pain every few minutes. A man comes by and asks the dog’s owner, “Your dog appear to be in pain. What’s wrong with him?” The owner explains that the dog is laying on a nail which is sticking out of the floor. The man then asks the obvious question, “Why doesn’t he get up and move?” The owner replies, I guess the pain just ain’t bad enough yet.”

For me, the pain of Windows just got too bad. It was time to get up and move.

I made a list of all the things I used my computer to do – from basic word processing, to video editing, to webpage development. I admit, I like trying new software applications and I had a lot of applications on my hard drive, some I only used occasionally and others i used all the time. I listed the tasks – not necessarily the actual applications – that I used a lot and then started to research what alternatives existed in the Mac world. For the tasks that I use my computer for, there was not a single application that did not have a Mac replacement that wasn’t equivalent or better than wat I currently had under Windows.

To be fair, the Mac version of MSN Messenger, which I used a lot, was greatly watered down compared to its Windows cousin. iChat looked great, but most of my friends use Windows so it was not greatly usful to me. Skype was good on the Mac, but lacking live video like the Windows version. Other than that, I had alternatives for just about everything else I needed.

I spent ages looking through the Mac OS X tutorials on the Apple website. I use my computer a lot and I wanted to to be totally sure a Mac would work for me. Would I like the new interface? Could I deal with the Dock? The switch to a new user interface for a new operating system seemed like such a big deal! I had Macs before and really liked them, so I don’t know what I was worried about, but I was. I think it was all about having so much history tied up in the Windows OS I knew so well that the decision to switch seemed so much more important that it ought to have been. I’m sure that’s what keeps many Windows users where they are… the fear of the unknown and the new.

Logically, I couldn’t help thinking that if the Mac OS was anywhere near as good as the user experience I had been enjoying with iTunes and my iPod, then it would have to be pretty good. I mean, if Apple could do such an amazing job with those two things, then why should OS X be any different.

Still, I vaccilated on the desicion. I went to the Apple Store online so many times, loading up my shopping cart with the newest MacBook Pro, only to hesitate when it came to clicking the buy button. I just wasn’t sure that I could throw away everything that I’d worked with over the past 15 years. I watched the videocasts from Mac World and listened to Steve Jobs go through all the cool new features of the current models. I read article after article, blog after blog, review after review, but I just wasn’t quite sure I was ready to finally let go of that Windows lifeline and officially become a “Switcher”…

And then a wonderful thing happened. My Acer Tablet PC broke. Now I had to get a new computer, so I bit the bullet and did it. I bought a MacBook Pro.

That was about six months ago, and all I can say is why did I wait so damn long! When I sat down to write this I was going to make a list of the five things I liked most about my Mac and the five things I liked least. You know what? I can’t even think of five things I don’t like about my Mac. I can’t even think of one thing I don’t like. To me it is, without argument, the best computer I have ever owned. It does everything I could have asked for, and more. The interface, the user experience, of Mac OS X is so far ahead of anything else I’ve used, there is no competiton. It’s sleek and sexy on the outside, it’s an absolute joy to use on the inside, and the stability of its Unix heritage under the hood makes it, for me, the perfect computer.

I feel like I finally have a computer that works the way I work. I don’t have to think about how to make it do stuff, it just does it. It doesn’t fall over, it doesn’t crash, it doesn’t require me to be “the computer guy” the keep it running, it doesn’t need to be restarted all the time or to be updated all the time, it’s fast and stable, it lets me do all the things I like to use my computer for.

To use a well worn Apple cliche, it just works. Thanks Apple.

An Un-Evil Web Photo Album

WebAlbumsWhen I first saw Google’s interface for search a few years ago it was like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t cluttered with crap like every other major search engine seemed to be at the time. Yahoo! and whatever other search engines were around back then took a portal approach and jammed as much stuff on the screen as they could fit, whereas Google’s search tool was elegant in its simplicity. I’m sure this elegance is a major reason behind its ongoing success. That, and the fact that it would actually find what you wanted 99% of the time, and sites couldn’t buy their way into the top rankings.

For much the same reason I’ve not been a big fan of web photo storage sites like Photobucket or even Flickr, because of the amount of clutter and crap that goes along with them. I have a Flickr account but rarely use it because it’s just too, I dunno, inelegant…

So I was very pleased to have just discovered Google’s Picasa Web Albums, a free photo storage and web album service that benefits from Google’s same approach to simplicity and elegance. I’ve just been having a quick play with it, and it looks great. I especially like the way they have provided upload tools in the form of either a standalone application for uploading from your computer, or, my favourite, direct integration with iPhoto. Yep, just click on the photos you want to upload, choose Export from the File menu and you are presented with the Google upload dialog. A couple of clicks to choose quality settings, etc, and the job is done. You can make photos public or private, have large or small image views, get automatic slideshows, download individual photos, and it even comes complete with an RSS feed.

Full of useful features while still being easy and intuitive; just the way it should be.

This product will be great… one day

Just as a follow on to that last post, it’s interesting to compare the marketing strategies of Microsoft and Apple, especially when it comes to the release of new products.

Microsoft takes the hype-it-up-early approach – witness such products as Origami, Vista and Zune. Apple on the other hand are very tight-lipped about new products and essentially say nothing until a new product is announced by His Steveness at an event like MacWorld or WWDC. This latter approach by Apple always seems to cause the rumour mills to work overtime with speculation and guessing at just what might emerge, but the actual product releases often exceed consumer expectation, or at least are still full of surprises. On the other hand, Microsoft’s hype-in-advance approach seems to build enormous consumer expectation around their products but it is often dissapointingly not met when the crunch comes.

With both Vista and Zune still out on the horizon somewhere, it will be interesting to watch and see just how they manage to meet the expectation they have created for themselves. It appears that in Vista’s case the only way they will be meeting their long-overdue launch date will be to water down or eliminate features… and many of those features are ones that OS X Tiger already has.

Zune is still a ways off and is being touted as an iPod killer, but with over 75% of the portable music player market it will have a lot of catching up to do. And now Sandisk is talking about having an 8Gb flash memory based player, filled to the brim with features at a competitive price.

I can’t help but think that the key differentiator is not just about features but rather usability, and the others have a long way to go to catch the iPod in that regard. Not only that, but it’s only a matter of time before Apple (and others) have access to 8Gb flash memory, and with the profit Apple makes on iPods, they can still afford to compete.

Bring it on…

Destined for Extinction

Acer C100I read an interesting, albeit quite old, post by a guy called kstaken called “Has Microsoft lost its Marketing Touch?” about Microsoft’s track record of failure to capitalise on its own marketing hype. I found it interesting because it talks particularly about the Tablet PC.

Back in the day, I was actually quite involved with the marketing of the Tablet PC when I was working with Microsoft Australia’s case study program. As a technical writer it was my job to write business case studies on how Microsoft technologies were being implemented for success in the corporate and educational arenas. Just before the tablets were released I had the job of getting all the rapid deployment program (pre-release) stories together, writing all the case studies, and even travelling with the film crew as they made short promo pieces about the tablet technology. When the day arrived for the release it was with much fanfare, a big press event in Sydney, and then… nothing.

Well very little anyway. The technology was promising, so much so that I bought a Tablet PC myself. As it turns out, the build quality was crap and, despite having a couple of years of use out of the machine, it was a reasonable concept executed in a mediocre way and marketed even more poorly. As a teacher, I saw great potential for tablet technology, in lots of really interesting ways, but thanks to an almost total lack of promotion by one of the world’s biggest companies, there are still very few people who have even heard of tablets. Even among schoolage kids, usually a pretty switched on bunch when it comes to technology and gadgets; most of my students are amazed when I show them my tablet PC and usually have the same response… “I want one!”… but of course nobody actually gets one, because the marketing is so abysmally poor. It always starts out big and bold, but then just dribbles into nothing.

Where do these much hyped products go? What DID happen to the Tablet PC, the PocketPC phone, SmartDisplays, Windows XP Media Center, the “top secret” Origami Project? What about Sharepoint or, heaven forbid, .NET? Why do they always amount to 4/5’s of bugger all? Already it seems that future products such as Vista are running out of steam before they even get off the ground. What on earth is Microsoft doing wrong? Surely a cashed up company like Bill’s can afford to get some of their marketing right?

I met a lot of bright, well meaning people at Microsoft who believe that the products they market are good stuff, and who genuinely want those products to be a success. They must get incredibly frustrated by the failure of the marketing machine to follow through.

I don’t much care for Microsoft’s products these days, and have abandoned Windows in favour of another more mature (dare I say, real) operating system. But I just can’t figure out why Microsoft has so much trouble following up on those products that it goes to so much trouble to develop.

It just doesn’t make sense.

The Natural Law of Blogging

I just finished reading an interesting book about blogging, titled Who Let the Blogs Out, but a guy called Biz Stone. I’m still wondering what the name Biz might be short for, but regardless, I did find it quite an engaging read. Biz Stone was a very early blogger, was involved in created Xanga, has written a couple of books on the subject and now works at Google helping run Blogger. I guess that makes his opinions worth hearing, purely just based on his credentials.

The overriding message I took from his book was that the true worth of blogging cannot be appreciated on a small scale. A single blog post, or even a single blog, is not what it’s all about. Blogging gets it’s power from becoming a large scale ecosystem, a thriving community of people all cross linking to each other, creating connections and networks of ideas. The power of blogging is way more than the sum of its individual parts, and to gauge the power of this new medium it needs to be seen in the light of the much bigger picture that it creates.

He draws some good analogies, some of which coincidentally come from the last book I read before this one, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. The point made in that book, in fact both books, is that groups of people can be collectively smarter than the brightest individuals within the group, if the group is made up of diverse individuals with a broad range of views, supported by a medium that allows them to communicate freely.

Sounds like blogging to me.

Adding my Voice

I figured that since I was enjoying the whole blogging experience during our teaching exchange to Canada, I would start another blog, this time focussed on matters educational/technological. I plan to use it mainly to air my thoughts and ideas about the uses of technology, especially with regard to education, but pretty much about whatever I feel like writing about.

I can see a lot of potential for the uses of blogs, wikis and podcasts in the educational environment, but it will be interesting to see exactly how it all pans out. I did convert a largely textbook task into a podcast project last semester, and I think it worked out ok, but this semester I am going to try to push things a bit further.

If you have any ideas about interesting uses of Web 2.0 technology in the classroom it would be great to hear about them…