The Software Conundrum

Many people I know struggle with technology. They bumble by, more-or-less managing to make their computer do what they want it to do, but often without that real sense of confidence that comes from feeling fluent with the software they are interacting with.  And let’s face it, when we talk about “technology”, we mostly mean “software”. Sure, there are some hard-to-use hardware devices but by and large when I watch someone struggling to feel comfortable using “technology”, it’s usually because they are out of their depth with the software they are trying to use, not the hardware.

It might not seem like it when you’re so frustrated you just want to throw your laptop out the nearest window, but companies who build software try really hard to make their tools easy to use. Of course, not all software is actually easy to use, but I do believe that all software designers really do try to make their software as easy to use as possible. It’s not easy… some of the things we expect software to do are incredibly complex, and designing software that does complex stuff while also making it easy to use, is really hard to do well!  But the next time you are struggling to use a piece of software, remind yourself that someone, somewhere, probably spent a great deal of time and energy trying to make it as easy as they could. And no matter how much it might feel like it, the software designer’s goal was not to confuse and frustrate you.

Because writing software is so hard, it takes a special kind of person to do it. Software developers are usually incredibly intelligent people because you really do need to be fairly smart to write software. Most developers also have very systematic and methodical minds, because, again, that’s just the sort of mind you need to write software. It’s this combination of high intelligence and methodical thinking we sometimes call an “engineer’s mindset”, and while you need it to write good software, it’s really not the way the majority of us think.

And that’s part of the problem of why there is so much “hard to use” software. The people who create it are often on a completely different planet to the people who use it.  For a super smart software engineer, the term “easy to use” might mean something entirely different.  Because most “dumb users” find it difficult to think the way engineers think, and many engineers are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the average end user, there is often a huge mismatch between the two groups that ends up making software seem much harder to use than it should be. (You might like to read The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper for a really good insight into this problem) Thankfully, software has gotten much, much better over the last few years thanks to much better development environments and more flexible programming frameworks, a greater emphasis on end-user usability testing, a greater acceptance of the idea of a “public beta”, and also the “appification” of complicated software in small, app-sized chunks on easy to use mobile devices.

So thankfully, things are improving.  But if software is getting better, and companies really DO try hard to make their software as easy to learn and use as possible, why do so many people still seem to find it so damn hard to use?

So here’s a few tips for becoming a much better, more confident and more fluent user of modern desktop software…

Mix it up!

This was one of the most powerful things I ever did to become a more fluent software user… I deliberately started using software that was different to what I was used to. If you use a software tool to do a particular task, find out what other software tools do a similar thing, and try them.

For example, if all your word processing is done in Microsoft Word, try using some other word processing tools for a change. Libre Office Writer, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, WriteRoom, Scrivener, AbiWord… the list is long if you look. There is something incredibly liberating about trying a different tool than the one you’re used to. It forces you to see things more conceptually – to understand the concepts of formatting text, rather than simply remembering where the Bold button is located. As you move between multiple tools that do the same task, you start to see the commonalities and the differences between them.

You realise that all tools in this category have certain core features, but you also see how different tools implement some of those features better or worse than others. You start to think in terms of function rather than form. You develop a better ability to scan your eyes over the interface quickly, spotting the buttons you recognise, even though they might look a little different.  You realise that the design of software is far more consistent and predictable than you maybe imagined it was. You start to see the ways that different programs handle the same common file formats.

Are you a PowerPoint user? Why not try Keynote, Google Presentations, SlideRocket, Libre Office Impress, Prezi or 280 Slides?

What do you use to edit video? Whatever you use now, take a look through some of the alternatives from iMovie, Windows Live MovieMaker, Pinnacle Studio, Sony Vegas, Adobe Premiere Pro or Premiere Elements, Final Cut Pro X.  As you might imagine, if you actually did try all these different video editing tools, you wouldn’t just know how to use a bunch of video editing tools, you would truly understand the core idea of what it means to edit video.

There is great alternative software in most of the major categories. Just go to Google and search for [alternatives to X] where X is the software you use now, and see what you can find. Much of it is free to try, if not completely free to use.  Using lots of different software tools that do more-or-less the same job makes you a far more flexible and adaptable user. You don’t have to permanently switch from your old faithful tool if you don’t want to (although you might be surprised at how good some of the others are!) Switching to a new tool is not the point of the exercise. But by trying lots of new tools you will develop a far deeper understanding of what software is all about, and your technological fluency will take a supercharged leap forward.

Trust me on this.

Check out your options

Whenever you work with a new piece of software, take a moment to explore the options or preferences.  On most Windows software you’ll find it under the Tools > Options menu, and on the Mac its in the application menu under Preferences.

Whenever I get my hands on a new piece of software, I go straight to the prefs or options and spend a few minutes looking through them. Those few minutes are always paid back in greater productivity through having a better sense of what the software is all about, plus I can usually find lots of little tweaks that make the software work the way i want it to work.

It astounds me how often I see people struggling (sometimes for years!) with some annoying behaviour in their software that can be easily changed simply by unticking a checkbox in the preferences. Don’t be one of those people.

What’s on the menu?

The other thing I will always do with any new piece of software is just take a moment to look through all the dropdown menus to see what’s there. Many of them will be immediately recognisable – obvious ones like cut, copy, paste, select all, etc – through to those that will give you some clues as to what the software might be able to do.

Seeing choices like Arrange, Group, Align, etc immediately tell you things about what the software can do.  The View menu often lets you change the way you see the software by accessing fullscreen mode, changing zoom levels, and so on. If you’re observant you can also pick up some great keyboard shortcuts as well.

Look for menu items than you don’t recognise too. For example, if you’re usually an Internet Explorer user you might be intrigued by options such as Chrome’s Incognito Window. Click it. See what it does. It’s software, you can’t really break it, so go explore!

Don’t be afraid to call for help

Every piece of software I’ve ever used has a Help menu. Someone, somewhere, went to a lot of time and trouble to document this software and explain what it does, how to use it, and how to get the best out of it. Why would you not use it?

And yet, whenever I see someone struggling with a piece of software, I can almost guarantee that the answer to “have you checked the Help menu?” is no. C’mon! Just use it… Look it up if you have a problem, or just glance through it to pick up some useful tips. Don’t be so helpless.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve showed someone some ridiculously simple time-saving tip that has totally changed the way they work, only to have them ask “How do you find this stuff??!”

Easy. I once got stuck on the exact same problem as you, and I looked in the Help menu to work out how to solve it. Just like you can.

If you really don’t want to use the Help menu (“It’s so complicated!”) then just Google your problem. Just type in something like [how do i merge 2 tracks in audacity]. Believe it or not, you won’t be the first person to ever ask that question. Someone has already solved it. Learn from their experience.

Putting this into action with your students

A task I’ve had my Computing Applications students to do several times now is to create a user manual, either in text or screencast format, for a piece of software they’ve never seen before. It’s not hard to find obscure software tools that most students have never heard of, so pick a few for them to choose from and get them to create a user manual for one of them. Not only do they need to learn a completely new piece of software, they also need to figure out how to clearly explain it’s features in a way that non-users can easily understand. They can’t do that unless they understand it themselves.

They’ll need to learn quickly, communicate clearly, have empathy with end users, and also learn new presentation skills. Try also to get them to run some real usability testing with other people using the training resources they’ve created in order to see how well they have communicated their understanding. Everytime I’ve done this, my students have found it a useful and worthwhile task.

Got any other tips for learning new software quickly? I’d love to hear them.  And if you’re a fluent software user, add a comment and tell us what the “penny dropping” moment was for you, when software started to make sense.

Less is More

Sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock. To think about getting rid of some of the clutter that we allow to build up.

You may recall that I was thinking about shifting my blog to a new server and running a self hosted WordPress blog. Well, I had intended to think about it a little before I did anything drastic (I think that’s called procrastination), but once you get started on these things it all begins to snowball so you may as well just get on with it.  So here we are… the new online home for Betchablog.

If you’re reading this in an RSS reader then you probably won’t even notice a change (at least I hope not! Moving the old RSS feeds across to a new server was something that always put me off making the move, but I think I worked it out). I used Google Forms to ask for some feedback about the old blog and 41 people took the time to respond with some really useful comments. (That Google Forms is just so darn useful!)  It’s good to occasionally stop and take stock of some of the things we do – and although I’ve never really been one for focus groups or being led by the popular vote, it was good to get some feedback from others and see things from their perspective.

The results of the survey were interesting and essentially confirmed some of what I had been thinking myself… the previous site was ok, but it was a bit bland, the sidebars were a bit cluttered and it was confusing to find stuff. Regarding the look of the last site, survey respondents used words like “ugly”, “unneccesary”, “visual clutter”, “text-book-look”, “convoluted”, “a bit loud” and so on, but the best one of all was “the sidebars represent Web 2.0 gone crazy!”

Somewhat more encouraging were the number of people who remarked that they enjoyed the quality of the writing and the content and confirmed this as the real reason they were interested in the blog in the first place.  One commenter said “I come for the content, not all the bells and whistles”, and I thought to myself “Good point! I should be blogging for the content and not all the bells and whistles!”

It’s funny how we can often do things, not because we particularly need them, but just because we can.  Most of the widgets and visual clutter on the old blog was there because… well, because they could be!  The great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe probably said it best with his famous phrase “Less is More”. In the same way that music needs rests and pages need whitespace, sometimes the things we do can be more effective by what we don’t include. From my own web browsing experience, I know how annoying it can be when you arrive on a site and it takes several minutes just to work out were the actual content is. So that was the first goal for the new site; to simplify it a bit and get rid of some of the stuff that really didn’t need to be there.

The second thing that mattered to me was improving the site functionality.  The last site had just grown organically, and although it helped me learn a lot about blogs and feeds and user interface issues and writing and layout and so on, I wanted to take some of those lessons and use them in the new blog.  I wanted the new blog to provide better functionality for anyone who came to it, with a simple navigation and easy access to features like better search tools, improved RSS feeds, a mobile version of the site, and clearer ways to actually find what’s worth reading here.

And thirdly, there is a whole lot of interesting stuff that can be done with WordPress when you have control over the server. Actually, it becomes an exercise in restraint… there are thousands of plugins and widgets and themes and things that can be added to WordPress, but I think the trick is to find those things that focus on improving the user experience and to resist the temptation to add them simply “because I can”.  I can definitely do more cool stuff on the new server than I could on the old server, but ironically, I’ve tried to exercise more restraint about what gets included. When I was thinking about moving to my own site I had all these ideas about what I might include, addition features, funky graphics and so on… but really, I think it’s better if it’s kept simple. It’s just so easy to get carried away!

And although it’s just a blog, it’s actually been a bit of a life lesson.

Anyway, I hope you like the new site.  If you have any thoughts on it just drop them in the comments. If you’re more of an RSS type and rarely ever visit the actual site, I’d love to know that the feeds are working for you. I plan to write another post soon with a bit of technical info about the sorts of plugins and options I have used, just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Image: ‘stones
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24532907@N06/3251916229

The WordPress Tango

For a few years now, this blog has been an important place for me to do my “thinking out loud”, and in the process it’s been extremely rewarding to have been able to share some of that public pondering with others.  I’ve learned a great deal from the whole blogging experience and although the frequency of posting has sometimes varied with life’s little circumstances, on the whole it’s been wonderful to evolve this blog as my own little place in cyberspace.

I have absolutely no intention of changing the role of this blog as a place to think about, share and discuss ideas that interest me.  Despite the rise of Twitter and other microblogging services, there’s a lot I can’t say in 140 characters so I plan to be writing here for quite a while yet.

The theme for this blog has been pretty much the same since I started it here on Edublogs.  Almost from day one, I chose the Andreas theme, a WordPress theme designed by the incredible Andreas Viklund because it has a number of design features that are important to me – two sidebars and an “elastic” resizing that stretches the main column to fit any size browser window. It has the usual ability to embed various widgets and feeds, but most blog themes can manage that.  And while it has a few customisation options for changing colours and so on, visually it’s a pretty basic sort of theme.  Some might even say it’s a bit boring. I’ve often thought about changing it, but I’m wary of just swapping themes at random and besides, although Edublogs may offer 100 different themes there’s only handful that I actually like.

Although I’ve said many times that I blog mainly for myself, it’s still nice to think that there are readers out there who actually spend time reading this stuff. While it might be fun to just swap themes whenever the mood strikes me, I’m sure it would be a little off-putting for visitors if the site looked different every time they dropped by. For me, providing some visual consistency with the aim of building readership has been more important than simply swapping blog themes for my own amusement when I’m bored, even though I am often tempted to.

Lately though, I am really getting itchy feet to do a site overhaul.  There are some really interesting WordPress themes and plugins around at the moment, and I’m feeling the need to take advantage of them.  Of course, this may necessitate a move from the legendary Edublogs service to a self hosted WordPress server.  That makes it quite an emotional decision, because both James and Sue have been awesome in what they’ve offered to the global blogging community over the last few years.  They have both been personally very helpful to me when I’ve had requests, needed assistance or I’ve just been able to hang out with them.  The thought of not having my blog running on the Edublogs servers is hard to imagine.

But in the last few months I’ve had to get a bit of WordPress backend experience.  We installed our own WPMU server at school after Edublogs placed restrictions on non-supporter blogs, and to be honest, managing the server has been really quite straightforward.  It took a bit of fiddling to get some of the RSS running just the way I wanted, but once it’s done it works just fine.  I also helped my partner Linda set up her new self hosted blog and was quite stunned at the additional power and options she got from it.

The other thing I did which helped me understand how this stuff works was to install WordPress locally on my MacBook Pro.  It’s quite straightforward and takes advantage of the super-useful MAMP stack, a neat little bundle of tools that, with one easy click, runs Apache, MySQL and PHP on the machine, effectively turning it from a regular old laptop into a powerful web server capable of delivering server-side applications like WordPress and Moodle.  By running MAMP and installing the WordPress code, I now have a fully functioning WordPress server on my laptop that lets me experiment and play with all sorts of themes and plugins from WordPress.org.  If you’re even only slightly technical, you should find it very easy to do, and extremely worthwhile.

If I do make the move to a self-hosted WordPress installation, the other thing I haven’t really worked out is how to handle the subscribers feeds.  The blogs currently has nearly 1200 subscribers and I’d rather not just lose them and start again.  I do redirect my subscription feeds through Feedburner, so it may be as simple as just telling Feedburner what the new site URL is.  Then again, it might not be that simple either.  I need to take a closer look at how that stuff works.

Either way, moving from Edublogs to a new server, moving from the current blog design to a new one, are all decisions that I’m still wrangling with. It’s easier to just leave things as they are, but perhaps it’s time for a change.

So I’d really appreciate your thoughts… assuming I can look after all the technical backend stuff to get the same or more functionality from the blog, but with a nice fresh clean theme, what do you think? Should I make the change?  Do you even care?  If you could take a moment to do this quick survey I’d really appreciate it.

And thanks for being a reader!

Image: ‘Do you Tango? [snag]
http://www.flickr.com/photos/36613169@N00/378823

The Buzz on Buzzword

Every so often I stumble across a new piece of software that just does its thing exceptionally well. In a world too full of very ordinary software products, its nice to find one occasionally that just does its job very well, with a feature set that has all the stuff you want and is not cluttered up with stuff you don’t, and perhaps most importantly, an interface that is intuitive and clean so that it can be used without any real learning curve. Voicethread is a great example of such an interface.

It’s really exciting to see so many of these well crafted apps starting to appear on the Internet as web apps, sometimes called Rich Internet Applications or RIAs. RIAs, when done well, can give the impression of behaving like a desktop app but with all the added advantages of being in the cloud… advantages such as ubiquitous access, remote storage of data and the ability to collaborate across time and place. Google Docs uses this model and is a fine way to create online documents that can be shared for collaborative purposes.

The problem with Google Docs (at least as far as word processing is concerned) is that from an interface point of view, it’s not the prettiest way to interact with your words. It’s certainly not a true WYSIWYG interface, so that when you add tables and graphics to the document you really have no idea what it will look like when printed. I find Google Docs a hugely convenient way to work with documents that need to be accessed from anywhere or need to be shared with others, but because it is essentially a HTML based writing space, I do sometimes lament the way it handles the niceties of layout and page design.

So I was super excited do discover Adobe’s Buzzword this week. Buzzword is an online word processor written in Flash that does nearly everything Google Docs’ word processor does but has a much nicer, much prettier and much more intuitive interface. You can sign up for a free account and try it out at no cost.

Buzzword comes from Adobe and really starts to show the enormous power of Flash as a development platform for the web. Obviously the combined brainpower and engineering that came about thanks to the merger between Adobe and Macromedia is starting to really show some results of how powerful their combined thinking can be. (You can see evidence of that in the latest Adobe CS3 Suite – some awesome new features in Photoshop for example)

Opening Buzzword gives you a regular pageview layout, with familiar dropdown menus and tools. Using it is a familiar experience if you know anything at all about Word. You get less of course, and you can’t make tables of contents, do mail merges, use document maps or change case options. There are many things that Buzzword won’t do. But most of those features are not used by the vast majority of word processor users, who are happy to be able to set font styles and typefaces, add tables and images, change font colours and make bullet lists. Buzzword has all of these common features (with some nice usability tweaks, making some features, such as bulleting and numbered lists, even easier to manage than in Microsoft Word). Buzzword is nice to use, with funky animations as documents open and close, document listings that get rearranged automatically, and so on. It just feels good to interact with.

Where it really comes into its own is in the way it enables shared collaboration. Just like Google Docs, Buzzword allows you to invite people to either view, review or co-author a document, Viewers can just read them, reviewers can leave comments on them, and co-authors can make changes. Google Docs can be quite laggy however, and there can be delays between when a user makes a change and when the other collaborators see that change… this makes it hard to use in real time. What I really like about the collaborative nature of Buzzword is that it clearly shows who are the collaborators, shows when they are online, when they are editing and it has a clever lockout system that makes it impossible for two co-authors to edit a document at the same exact instant. As soon as a change is saved however, it is instantly reflected on the other users screens. This works amazingly well for multiple people working on the same document at the same time, and ensures that people don’t inadvertently write over the top of other people’s changes, something that is easy to do in, say, a wiki. Buzzword makes you wait your turn until the previous user finishes with their changes.

Buzzwords can import and export text documents from .txt, .rtf, .doc, .docx and .xml. It has no spreadsheet or presentation tools, but as a word processor it’s very nice. It’s not a Word killer but nor is it designed to be.  For someone with basic word processing needs who wants the benefits an in-the-cloud service like this can offer, Buzzwords is worth a serious look.

In summary, I’m really impressed with the WYSIWYG look and feel of Buzzword. Although I have a lot of documents stored on Google Docs I can see myself migrating most of them over to Buzzword, not only for the improved collaborative environment but just because it’s so much darn nicer to use!

When Everything Looks Like a Nail

The regularity of my blogging has dropped off a bit lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of writing a book about the use of interactive whiteboard technology for teachers. Although I’ve got almost 20,000 words written so far, I am way behind deadline and really need to get the first draft finished so it can be submitted to the publishers in a few weeks. Until I get that done, every time I feel the urge to blog I have to remind myself that there is a (new) deadline looming and direct my writing efforts to the book instead of the blog. I feel bad that my blogging has been suffering lately, but I really need to get this done. So there you have the reason I’ve not been updating lately.

However, I simply had to take a few minutes to share this wonderful new tool I’ve found called Scrivener. It’s an incredible tool for anyone taking on a large writing task and I really can’t believe I’ve never tried it before. I had heard the name mentioned but assumed it was just another word processor. How wrong I was!

There is an assumption that the defining software tool for writers is Microsoft Word. While Word is a very powerful application and has many, many features that most people never even discover, Word can be a frustrating tool for anyone contemplating the writing of a very long piece of work such as a book. I use Word a lot and know it quite well… in fact I hold a Advanced level Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word, so I feel quite at home in it. I can generally twist Word to my will and make it do pretty much whatever I need, but it’s still a pain in the neck when working on something as large and fragmented as a book.

There’s no doubt that Word is a great tool for certain types of writing. But as they say, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Enter Scrivener. Designed expressly for anyone working on long documents that require many edits, such as books and screenplays, Scrivener takes an entirely different approach to writing. Essentially, it treats easch writing task as a project, collecting resources for writing into a single place and then enables you to break long text into short, movable, definable chunks, letting you categorise and synopsise each chunk and assemble them into the final work. You can break text into chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences… whatever you like… and move them around to let your ideas flow far better than Word will ever allow. Unfortunately Scrivener is a Mac only application, but Windows users might like to check out PageFour which apparently does similar things.

Using Scrivener has been somewhat of an eye-opening paradigm shift for me. It has challenged my assumptions about the very nature of the software tools we give our students. It made me realise what a mistake it is to assume that Word – or any “industry standard” software tool – is necessarily the tool for the job as far as student use is concerned. We inflict tools like Word on our students because they are supposed to be “what everybody uses” and we insist that the best tools to teach them to use are the tools used “by industry”. The fact is, schools are not offices, and the writing needs of a business person are not necessarily the writing needs of a student. The best tool for a student is not the one that they will use when they get older, but the one that helps them do what they need to do right now.

There is nothing “wrong” with Word, but having now spent some time with Scrivener it is now painfully obvious just how much more we could offer our students if we stopped assuming the tools of the business world were what they should master in order to create written texts. Real writing is a process of collecting ideas and thoughts together, manipulating them into a cohesive form, and editing and re-editing them until they make sense to other people. I now see how tools such as Scrivener approach the task of writing from a completely different angle and enable it to take place in a far more fluid way.

Now back to work! I have a book to finish…

PS: Here’s a video that gives a great overview of what Scrivener is all about…

video overview

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Living in the Cloud

Until fairly recently, most of my computing was done locally using “real apps”. By this, I mean they are cllient-side applications installed on the hard drive of my own computer. I guess I’ve always liked the speed and convenience of having my applications – tools like Office, email, calendar, feedreader, etc – right there on my hard drive where I could get to them running at full local speed. Once you’ve been spoilt by the responsiveness of locally-run apps, web apps that run from the Internet just aren’t as snappy.

Of course, many will say that locally installed apps are old skool; that if you really think with a Web 2.0 mindset, then running your key software directly from the Internet makes more sense. The world is certainly trending that way, with a proliferation of Web 2.0 apps that now run directly from “the cloud” and computing devices designed to work this way, such as the Macbook Air. Computing in the cloud started with obvious applications like webmail, but have now extended to office productivity software, photo editing, even video production, all workable with nothing more than a web browser and a broadband connection.

Life is all about compromises and finding the right balance. Although I’ve been resisting cloud computing for a while, my circumstances changed recently and I decided to make a switch to see if I could manage moving my basic tools off the desktop and into the big blue nowhere.

The real trigger for making the move to the cloud was an increase in the number of computers I was working on every day. My main machine has been a Macbook Pro, which I essentially did everything on. I also owned a 20″ iMac on my desktop, but that was used mainly for editing podcasts and storing my media with iPhoto and iTunes. I really didn’t spend that much time on the iMac, although it’s a beautiful machine to use. Since we moved house recently though, I’ve been using the iMac a lot more, even more than the MacBook Pro. Then when I started the new job I was given a Toshiba 12″ Tablet PC as my work machine.  It became awkward to manage all my stuff since it was now spread across three different computers, all using locally installed software applications. Suddenly, locally installed apps were making a whole lot less sense, with important emails and documents never on the machine I happened to be using, my work calendar and my personal calendar getting out of sync on different machines, and I figured it was time to start looking for a better way to consolidate my digital life.

So here’s the problem… I had three machines grabbing email from 5 different accounts, two calendars that needed to be kept separate but I also needed to cross reference them against each other, a writing project which required collaboration with another writer in a remote location, and a group of RSS feeds that were being picked up on three different machines. My digital life was a mess…

It was finally time to submit to the cloud computing model and take all of these disparate bits and move them to cyberspace, where I could access them from any computer. There are many tools to enable this, but I decided to go with Google’s tools since they seem to work really well together and one login would give me access to everything… Gmail for my email, Google Reader for my RSS aggregator, Google Calendar for my appointments, and GoogleDocs for my documents. I won’t labour the point about these tools since I assume most people are already pretty familiar with them, and using web apps is hardly a revolution, but I did want to mention a few tweaks and tips that really made the move to the cloud so much more workable for me.

First, Gmail. For a long time, I’ve been a heavy user of Entourage, and more recently Apple’s Mail, and really liked them.  Although I’ve had a Gmail account for ages, I mainly used it just as my secondary mail account. My real mail comes in on chris[@]betcher.org and I didn’t really want to switch that. Thankfully, Gmail has the ability to hook into my ISP’s account and pull my regular mail into the Gmail service. This means that I can now stick to my long term email address via my regular ISP but get to it with the convenience of Gmail’s web-based anywhere-access. I added another POP account I had and I can now send and receive mail from any of these addresses via Gmail, from any machine, with the added advantage of a powerful spam filtering service freely supplied by Google.

Second, my feed reader. I tossed up whether to use Google Reader, Pageflakes, NetVibes or Bloglines. The new Bloglines beta looked good, but had a few annoying behaviours. After testing each system for a few days, I decided on Google Reader. Once it’s set up, it works very smoothly with Flock – my browser of choice – to add RSS feeds. The way it displays feeds is really intuitive and each to understand, and it was able to import the OPML file from my desktop feedreader, Vienna. So far, I’m impressed with Reader and I can now check my feeds from any machine, and keep them all in sync.

Google Docs are wonderful. Although I’ve got a Microsoft Office Specialist certificate and am a pretty capable “power user” of MS Word, like most people I mostly use it to type up fairly simple documents. Google Docs may lack many of the features of Microsoft Office, but they are mostly features I don’t use anyway, and the ability to collaborate on documents with other people more than makes up for the missing features. Working across several machines, the ability to have all my documents accessible from one place – the Internet – is an incredibly useful concept. But I was really won over with Google Docs when I saw the Firefox plug-in called GDocs Bar. This plug-in gives one-click access to Google Docs for both accessing your online files as well as uploading new ones. GDocs Bar makes Google Docs so much more functional.

Finally, the other big problem was that my personal calendar was being managed by iCal on my MacBook Pro, and my work calendar was being managed by Outlook on the school’s Exchange server. This made it hard to look at both my work and personal events together, as both were kept in separate places although they had overlapping events. The killer link in making the move to the cloud came with the ability to sync both the iCal and Outlook calendars into a single Google calendar. To achieve this, I used a $25 app called Spanning Sync to synchronise iCal to my Google calendar.  It works fantastically with perfect two way syncing. I then used the free Google Calendar Sync tool to do a two way sync of my work Outlook calendar into my Google calendar. The end result is that my online Google calendar now pulls data from my two separate calendars and displays it in real time, in one place, easily accessible from any browser.  This is way cool…

The bottom line is that I now feel I have a really workable cloud computing experience, with all my key information stored in one place – the web – that I can get to from any of my machines. I know there is still plenty of life left in the locally installed software model, especially for the more computationally intensive multimedia applications, but so far I’m pretty impressed at just how easy and effective it has been to move my most commonly used productivity apps to the cloud.

I just hope we can trust Google.

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The Awards and the After Party

A few posts ago I mentioned that both Betchablog and The Virtual Staffroom had been nominated for Eddies, or Edublog Awards.

As the voting processes started for the awards, there was apparently quite a bit of blog-love being shown for certain nominees in the form of multiple votes, automated voting, group voting, etc. It got to the point where the organisers had to first of all manually delete suspicious voting activity such as in the form of huge numbers of votes all coming from the same network address in a short period of time, and eventually had to completely limit the voting system to a single vote per IP address. No doubt this was the result of some very enthusiastic voting by students in class (“OK kids, your teacher has been nominated for an award so go to this url and click the button for me”). Finally, the opportunity to see the progress of the results was shut off completely as well. It’s a shame the voting had to be nobbled in this way as it really ruins whatever meaning may have been derived from the award process in the first place. At the end of the day, I think these awards are a bit of a lucky dip anyway and it was just nice to be nominated regardless of the notion of “winning”.

Getting up to speed with SLWhat did intrigue me though was the notice I received to say that the awards ceremony would be held on Jokaydia Island. “Cool!” I thought, I get to fly off to some tropical resort on some exotic island somewhere to attend the ceremony. Well, it’s true, I did fly off, and it was an exotic island, but it existed only in the virtual world of Second Life. Yes, the Edublog Award ceremony was to be held in a virtual 3D space – a space existing only as a collection of bits, bytes and packets inside my computer, arranged into an amazing 3D environment by the creativity of the people who build these virtual spaces.

While I have dabbled on and off with Second Life over the past year or so, I never spent long enough in there to really get my head around it. Holding the awards ceremony in SL was a great way to encourage me, and probably others, to spend a little more time in-world. So while I was dabbling again the other night I noticed Sue Waters was online in Skype. Sue, or Ruby Imako as she is known in-world, is well known for her Second Life skills so I buzzed her to ask for a quick tour of the facility. This turned out to be a really useful lesson, and I learned lots of things I’d not yet discovered, including how to get free stuff, how to make my audio work, how to interact with the in-world objects, and most important of all, how to photocopy my butt using the amazing Copybot. 🙂 Thanks to Ruby (Sue) and and also Slammed Aabye (Dean) for showing me around. It was enlightening, and made me realise just how much I have to learn.

The actual awards were held on Sunday morning at 8:30am Sydney time so my SL alter-ego, Outback Outlander, turned up with a handsome new look (thanks to some last minute shopping on Freebie Island) and took my seat at the awards auditorium with a whole lot of other very good looking avatars. The event was hosted by Jeff Lebow, James Farmer and Dave Cormier who did a great job of keeping it all moving along despite a couple of minor hassles with the audio streams. Considering it was being broadcast out to Second Life, UStream and Skype, it was a pretty impressive undertaking. Here are a few happy snaps taken during the event, and these are the final winners. Also interesting to read is James Farmer’s insights into the “Awards Curve” and some suggestions for growing the event next year. Jo Kay, who is largely responsible for the creation of Jokaydia Island did an awesome job of building these spaces, and I’m absolutely gobsmacked at the world she has created in SL. Her attention to detail, sense of design, creativity and inventiveness just blows me away.

I’m still getting me head around Second Life. There are times when I see glimpses of amazing possibilities and others where I just shake my head and wonder what all the fuss is about. While it’s obviously got plenty of wow factor, I do still wonder just how effective the actual learning could be in a place like this. I still find it amazing that a virtual space can be used to hold an “event” like this, that people turn up, with their avatars all dressed up, some with virtual clothes that they paid for with real money, to socialise and mingle as though it were the real world. I still get blown away when I read that over half a million dollars of real money change hands in Second Life every day!

When I told other people I know (who mostly don’t “get” this whole online world thing) that my blogs had been nominated for an award they congratulated me. When I told them the awards ceremony was going to held in a place that existed only inside a computer, populated by people who were represented only by virtual 3D characters, they looked at me as though I was nuts. When I heard people in-world saying that there was an awards after-party on the beach where there would be dancing and drinks, I started to wonder if I was nuts. Dancing and drinks?! C’mon! I mean, in my First Life I’m sitting in my study in front of my computer in my pyjamas on a Sunday morning and in my Second Life I’m heading to a virtual beach to drink virtual cocktails and dance under a virtual mirror ball? … I’m pretty geeky, but that is seriously bizarre stuff!

So what did I do? I wandered down to the beach afterward and hit the dance floor with the others of course. Like most of this new technology world, if you ever want to understand it and find whatever value it might have, you just have to get in and give it a go. So pass me that virtual pina colada and let’s boogie on down, baby!