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Mind Mapping Apps for the iPad: A Comparison

Unlike the Android marketplace, Apple’s appstore unfortunately does not allow you try out apps for a couple of minutes and get a refund if you don’t like them. After buying an iPad I wanted to have a good Mindmapping app, but I had no idea which of the six or so options would be the best choice for me. I searched for a site that compared them all, but couldn’t find that either. That’s when I decided to buy them all, use them all and review them all on this blog.

I wanted to make this a definitive review, so I created a companion spreadsheet with all the factual and easily quantifiable information about the different apps. You can find it here (I will not keep it up to date, so if you want to volunteer to do that I can give you access). The spreadsheet will tell you for example whether the app can work with an external screen, if there is an iPhone or Desktop equivalent and what methods and formats are supported for import and export.

iPad mind mapping compared in a spreadsheet

iPad mind mapping compared in a spreadsheet

For each of the apps I tested how easy it was to learn and to use, how the mindmaps look, whether it is possible to share the maps easily to other users and locations and whether there are any online services that the maps can sync to. I also gave each of the app a rating (10 is marvellous, whereas 1 is horrible).

iMindMap Mobile HD

€ 25.99 by Buzan Online

iMindMap Mobile HD

iMindMap Mobile HD

This is the offering by the company/man who has feverishly tried to copyright mind mapping and has build an accreditation and consultancy business around helping people leverage mind mapping in their work: Tony Buzan.

The stiff price of the app and the “official” stamp sets high expectations. Unfortunately the app doesn’t deliver. At first glance there is a lot of polish and a professional look (i.e. you get instructions on how to use the app with a slick video, the map overview screen with miniature versions of the mind maps is beautiful), but once you start using it, the shine goes away.

The interface is very counterintuitive. Even very experienced computer users might need to watch the video before they start being capable of inputting data using one of the two input methods. Moving nodes around and deleting them is clumsy. The interface for collapsing branches is shockingly bad. Each node can have a colour set and an icon (from a large collection) but cannot have any notes or URLs attached and can have a note or an URL attached (updated after a comment by Tim Smith).

The external presentation mode shows the map on the external screen and allows the iPad user to decide which topic to show. You cannot edit the map while using the external screen.

Overall it feels like this was built on commission by people with no real love for either mind mapping or the iPad. The people who commissioned the creation of the app, assumedly mind mapping experts from Buzan, should look at some of the other mind mapping apps available and learn that it isn’t only looks that are important.

Pros: Beautiful mind maps, “official” app.
Cons: Hard to use, no interoperability, outrageously expensive

Rating: 5/10

iThoughtsHD (mindmapping)

€ 7.99 by CMS

iThoughtsHD

iThoughtsHD

The longer you use this mind mapping app the more you realise that its maker has tried to make the ultimate tool for mind mapping on the iPad. He is striving for perfection and it shows.

Although the app is intuitive to use for beginners, it also has an extensive feature list for power users: From the setting of backgrounds, to keyboard shortcuts (e.g. three times “enter” will create a new sibling node, whereas three times “space” creates a new child).

Maps are organised in folders and can each have an icon for easy recognition. There is no search function yet to find a particular map or its contents.

Adding, moving and copying nodes and branches of nodes is very easy and can be done intuitively in multiple ways. Occasionally the app will misinterpret your intentions, but this is quickly remedied by a quick tap on the undo button.

The nodes can contain all kinds of information, varying from task related items (priority, progress, start- and due date, all with matching icons) to notes, URLs and icons. The colour and shapes are customisable too and can be applied to all children in a branch. It is possible and easy to make links between different nodes. The boundary option is unique and useful: it puts all the nodes in a branch in an outline and colours the background.

iThoughtsHD has its own native file format, but also supports many other mind mapping formats. There are a number of im- and export options. One way that works very well is the Dropbox integration. There is a two-way sync between iThoughtsHD and Dropbox. This is great for backup and also allows an easy way to safely collaborate with someone else on a map using a shared Dropbox folder.

Another iThoughtsHD feature that the other apps are missing is a revision history. iThoughtsHD keeps older versions of your map in case you want to go back in time (although the most recent version of the app seems to have lost this functionality has only made this functionality available when creating a new map (updated after a tweet from the makers of the app)). The app actively advises you not to rely on iTunes for doing a full backup and has a way to send an email with your complete data in an archive. This archive can then be imported in case it is needed.

Pros: Most complete feature set, very rich in its im- and export options
Cons: Could be overkill for some users

Rating: 9/10

Maptini

€ 3.99 by Barking Minds LLC

Maptini

Maptini

This app is relatively new (I believe the web service is still in beta). It is a very simple app with an output that looks similar to MindNode (with the concepts/nodes on narrow lines, rather than in rounded boxes).

The main point of Maptini is that allows for very easy collaboration using either the app or the version in the browser (there is even a way to work in mobile safari). It is incredibly quick to make your map completely public and let anyone else with a Maptini account edit the map.

The editing is simple and fast and there is not a lot to worry about: there are just 6 colours and a delete button. The iPad app does not allow any importing and exporting of different mind maps: this all needs to be done through the web interface.

Collaborative editing in realtime does really work as advertised, so if it is important for you to have multiple people work on the same mind map at the same time, then this app is worth a shot.

Pros: made for collaboration
Cons: no other features than basic map-based outlining

Rating: 6/10

MindMeister for iPad

€ 5.99 by MeisterLabs

MindMeister for iPad

MindMeister for iPad

MindMeister started its life on the web: for a yearly subscription fee you can have an unlimited number of mind maps stored online, accessible and editable through any modern browser and sharable with others for realtime collaborative work.

This web-based experience is now also available on mobile devices. The iPad app does not require a subscription with the web-service, but will only allow you to sync six mind maps from the iPad to your online account if you aren’t a subscriber (while not being completely transparent about how to influence which six maps will synched).

Like most (but not all) apps, MindMeister uses the model where you select a node and then click a “plus” to create a child of this node. This means that it always takes two taps to add a child, but what you lose in the number of taps, you gain in consistency. Moving nodes around is easy and the dedicated trashcan button is smartly put far away from the other node-related buttons in the interface. An undo button seems to be missing.

Nodes can be linked to each other, but it is not clear how to remove these links once you have created them (is this possible at all?). There is a good set of icons, the colour is flexible (you can even theme the whole map in one go), you can create direct links to URLs and email addresses and there are task related options. Tasks is something where MindMeister really shines: not only can you note the start/due date, priority, effort and completion, you can also assign the task to other MindMeister users. These tasks then sync to the web and people will get reminders when tasks are due.

The tasks functionality points to the ideal use case for MindMeister: if you work in a small team you could use it for all the minutes of meetings, for all the notes and for all the planning. The collaborative sharing would allow everybody to have the same view. When working through the browser the online collaboration works as fast as GoogleDocs (near instant synchronisation), on the iPad it seems to update a bit slower making it less easy to use with a virtual team.

The “Geistesblitz” functionality gets a lot of marketing in the description in the appstore, but is less useful than it is made out to be. What it allows you to do is to assign a default mind map (this needs to be done online). Whatever you then add in the Geistesblitz screen is added as a child of the “Geistesblitz” node in this default app. Most people will have another app to capture random notes and thoughts like this.

Most other apps with external screen support keep the iPad screen the same and display a version of the map (without any interface elements) on the external screen. MindMeister shows the complete iPad screen on the external screen, including all interface elements.

Rating: 8/10

MindNode

€ 4.99 by Markus Müller

MindNode

MindNode

This is very slick app that is very intuitive and quick to use. The feature set is light: it is impossible to do anything else with a node but give it a colour and there are limited options for im- and export. What it does, it does exceptionally well: it is easy to add nodes and delete them (there is an undo and a dedicated delete button) and moving a node takes no effort too.

The thin and freshly coloured lines on which the text is written are pleasing to the eye. The one thing that could be improved is the fact that auto-lay-outing (the app calls it reorganising) has to be triggered manually whenever the map gets too messy: there is no way to have the app do it continuously.

In most cases a mind map is nothing more than a hierarchical outline and could alternatively be displayed as an indented list. Kudos to MindNode for providing an easy way to navigate the map in list form and to provide a search box allowing you to quickly find a particular piece of information in a large map.

The app allows you to save maps to Dropbox in different formats, but this is only a one-way street: there is no easy way to import maps from Dropbox in a similar manner. This is one of the few apps that supports printing. There is no easy way for collaborative editing.

Pros: Very fast and minimal interface
Cons: Light on features with no advanced lay-out option or “intelligent nodes”

Rating: 7/10

Total Recall

€ 0 for three maps, € 0.79 for unlimited maps by Zyense

Total Recall

Total Recall

The opening map of this mind mapping app has a bit of a childish look (probably caused by the pastel colours and the bubbly nodes). The app is very simple in its functionality.

Each of the bubbles (nodes) can have its colour set and can be connected to any of the other bubbles. These connections are many to many, so with Total Recall you aren’t stuck with a purely hierarchical system, but can create real networks too. Because of this, the automatic lay-outing algorithm is interesting: you press play to start it, after which it starts pulling on all the connections until it has reached some form of equilibrium.

There is no support for an external screen and no other way than email to collaborate with other users.

Pros: Cheap, ability to have multiple connections between nodes
Cons: Very limited functionality, not very fast to use

Rating: 5/10

Trout

€ 1.59 by Digital-Dirtbag

Trout

Trout

This is definitely the odd one out in this list of apps. Trout is not made to be similar to anything else, instead it looks and feels like it was written to solve the knowledge management issues that the author himself must have had.

In one way that is great: this is the only app that allows you to record sound snippets with each of the nodes and to add images that can be zoomed. There is an interesting quick direct link to Google search results for the words in the node and the way that you can add your own meaning to both colours and icons is refreshing.

On the other hand it also a bit of a hindrance: this is one of the hardest apps to come to grips with and some of the icons on the buttons are really unclear. There is little or no documentation, so you are left to yourself to find out what a “model” is and how to work with defining icons that can then be sorted in the list view.

This app would mainly be recommended to curious minds.

Pros: Ability to record sound and upload images
Cons: Unclear interface

Rating: 6.5/10

The Verdict:

Three of these tools are really viable for everyday use. If you are interested in a very quick and clean solution that works well, then go for MindNode.

For the individual user who wants to make sure that their maps look good and who needs to be flexible with where the data of the map goes, iThoughtsHD is the best option.

If you work in a small team and you get other people to also subscribe for an account, then MindMeister seems to be the best option.

My costs

It cost me € 51.33 to buy all the apps and do this review of them. As an experiment, I would like the readers of this post to help me carry these costs. Would you be willing to donate a small amount? ((I also would not say “no” to a free MindMeister subscription!). I will remove this button as soon as my costs are recovered. Update 3/1/13: My costs have been recovered (thanks to about 20 generous readers). If you appreciated the reviews, then I would still appreciate a donation.

Please help me recover the costs of this review

I have to thank Linux Format for their Roundup feature format, which I used as the inspiration for the way this post is set up.

Written by Hans de Zwart

27-01-2011 at 03:06

DrupalJam in 7 tweets (Awesöme?!)

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to write about DrupalJam 6 by commenting on 7 tweets that have a #drupaljam hashtag. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

DrupalJam

DrupalJam

DrupalJam 6 was held in Amsterdam on March 19th 2010. I have never really used Drupal, but as a project it has many similarities to Moodle and that makes it interesting to me. Just like Moodle it was started by a single very sociable person with a vision, just like Moodle it is a PHP application and just like Moodle it is the de facto mindshare (if not market) leader in its field. All the similarities make looking at the differences even more interesting. Moodle has commercialised through a decentralised network of Moodle partners, whereas Drupal has chosen a venture capital backed route with Acquia.Martin Dougiamas has decided to commercialise the Moodle trademark through a decentralised network of Moodle partners, whereas Dries Buytaert has chosen a venture capital backed route by creating a company specialising in Drupal services: Acquia, allowing other companies to (often freely) license the Drupal trademark too. (Text deleted and added after a comment by Bert Boerland, thanks!) The DrupalJam was more product focused (in the sense of software focused) than your standard Moodlemoot. This makes sense: DrupalJam visitors only share the fact that they use Drupal (the contents of their site can be about anything) whereas Moodlemoot visitors usually also share a passion for education.

Let’s cut to the chase: During the DrupalJam I kept monitoring the #drupaljam hashtag using Tweetie 2. I then favourited every tweet that I thought was interesting and could be used for this post. Out of the twenty or so favourites I selected these 7 to share with you.

1. tkeppens: Het zou fantastisch zijn de #drupaljam sessies na de conf als screencast te kunnen zien. Drukke agenda laat niet toe er te zijn. : – ( #drupal
A quick translation: “It would be fantastic if #drupaljam sessions would be viewable as a screencast after the conf. Busy agenda doesn’t permit me to attend”. Technology is now at a stage where even for a non-commercial event, this should be feasible. Presentation capturing is something that I have been exploring in my role as Innovation Manager for Learning Technologies recently and it is a market with fast maturing products. I have looked at Presentations 2Go and am also very interested in Echo 360‘s offering (see here for a more complete list of options I explored). I believe it is good practice to separate the video of the speaker from the video of the speaker’s laptop. Does anybody know what is the easiest way of organising this on the cheap for conferences like the DrupalJam or a Moodlemoot?

2. ellishettinga: 2 werelden komen samen, #drupaljam in de Microsoft-/Sogetizaal, Microsoft als hoofdsponsor? Gezellig.
Translation: “2 worlds come together, #drupaljam in de Microsoft-/Sogetihall, Microsoft as the main sponsor? Convivial.” I have a distaste for giving rooms names of sponsors and have tweeted about that before:

Corporate Sponsorship

Corporate Sponsorship

However the fact that it is Microsoft sponsoring an open source event is pretty new to me and apparently something we should be getting used to.

3. ijansch: #drupaljam dangerous question in opening. ‘how many women are here’ is so eighties… Make them feel normal, not special.
Women in technology is a pretty contentious topic. Ada Lovelace day has just passed and could be seen as a symptom of more ground needing to be covered. DrupalJam did not have a lot of women attending. As nooble wrote: Op #drupaljam met 2^8 mannen en 2^2 vrouwen (“At #drupaljam with 2^8 men and 2^2 women”). I agree with ijansch that the organiser did a terrible job in the way that they brought this to the attention of the complete audience. Instead they should have asked themselves why this is the case and how it can be changed for the next event. I’ve recently listened to two podcasts that discuss women in technology as a (sub)topic: FreeBDSgirl and Fernanda Weiden both on Floss Weekly. Another interesting project to stay in touch with is Women & Mozilla. Open source projects should never forget that there are also many other diversity and inclusiveness lenses to take into account outside of gender.

4. ijansch: Would be nice if #drupaljam was on http://joind.in for talk ratings
It is always nice to learn about a new web service through a tweet. I checked out Joind.in and have decided to register for an account and try and use it at the next conference I am organising (Moodlemoot on May 26th). Joind.in allows you to add tracks and talks to your event and then provide an easy link to a summary, slides on Slideshare and a way to score and comment on the talk. They have an iPhone app and an open API (so other apps should be on their way). The only thing that might be a problem is that it doesn’t seem to allow for localisation: the whole site is in English, making Dutch summaries stand out a bit.

5. ekes: apache solr stats #drupal understand what people look for on your site. Genius. @robertDouglass #drupaljam
The first tweet that has any relation to Drupal. Apache Solr is an interesting Apache project that sits on top of the Lucene search engine library. It is a very fully featured and fast search platform with things like faceted search out of the box. There is a Drupal project that integrates Solr with Drupal, bringing very rich search functionality to any Drupal website. Good stuff!

6. askibinski: Just learned about the ‘Levensthein distance’. A way to compare similarities between strings. #drupaljam
This tweet had me whipping out my phone to do a Wikipedia search (I use the excellent and free Wikipanion app for that) on Levensthein distance. It is a way to see how similar two strings of text are measured by their edit distance: how many steps do you need to transform one string into another. I have no idea why this concept came up during DrupalJam (I wasn’t at the talk), but I do now have another trivia under my belt.

7. bramveen: Maybe the speaker should remove his chewing gum #drupaljam
Every open source project seems to have a least one “rock star” and Morten Heide self-named “King of Denmark” was the rock star of the day. Morten loves umlauts, the name of his company is “geek Röyale“, and his two favourite words are “awesöme” and “shit”.

Morten's Cöntact form

Morten's Cöntact form

Morten is a web designer and was giving the final talk of the day, speaking about the new way of doing themes in the as yet unreleased Drupal 7. The only problem with the talk was that Morten was chewing gum while talking. That and the rest of his behaviour turned the talk into more of a show about Morten then a talk about Drupal theming. Afterwards Mortendk showed some remorse on Twitter: #drupaljam next time im gonna drop The gum it was an #epicfail hope ppl got The awesome shit in drupal 7 anyways. I would say: Keep the gum, the world needs more completely self-involved rock stars…

Why Chromium is Now My Primary Browser

Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. For this post we agreed to include our personal browser histories in the post. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

Chromium Logo

Chromium Logo

If you are not interested in Browsers and/or usability, I would suggest you don’t bother to read this post.

I cannot exactly remember the first time I used the Internet. It probably was in 1996 in the library at the Universiteit Utrecht. I wasn’t particularly aware of the browser I was using, but I am quite sure that is was Netscape Navigator with which I did the Altavista searches. I used Netscape throughout my education, only to switch to Internet Explorer 5 when I got my own computer with Windows 98 and a dial-up Internet connection. I then used nothing but IE until I read about Mozilla Firefox in a magazine in 2004. Through Moodle I had started appreciating open source software and I liked working with Firefox and its tabs. I stuck with Firefox for a year or so, feeling quite the rebel whenever a site would only load in IE. At some point I noticed how much faster IE was than Firefox. That is when I switched to Avant Browser, a freeware skin around the IE browser engine which included tabs and some other advanced features. A little while later (somewhere in late 2005 or early 2006) I learnt about Opera. Opera had a lot of appeal to me. I liked how their developers pushed so many innovations in the browser space: tabbed browsing, advanced security features and mouse gestures were all inventions of Opera. I loved how fast it was and how many features they managed to cram in so little megabytes. Its cross platform nature allowed me to stay with Opera when I permanently switched to Ubuntu in the summer of 2006. I switched back to Firefox in early 2007 because of my slightly more hardcore open source attitude and because of its wonderful extensions. The latter allowed me to keep all the functionality that I loved about Opera and more.

About two weeks ago I switched to Chromium. This is Google’s relatively new open source offering in the browser market. I am able to automatically download new builds every day through the PPA for Ubuntu Chromium Daily Builds. Even though it is still beta alpha software, it is highly usable.

So why did I switch? I think there are three reasons:

1. Performance
Since a couple of months my private computing is done with a Samsung NC10. This Intel Atom based netbook is slightly underpowered. You really notice this when you are doing things like recoding a video or doing some CPU intensive image editing. I also noticed it terribly in Firefox. Things like Google Reader, DabbleDB (watch that 8 minute demo!) and the WordPress admin interface were nearly unusable. A cold start of Firefox (the 2.x version that comes with Ubuntu 9.04) takes nearly a minute. Chromium on the other hand starts up in a couple of seconds and is very spiffy with Javascript-heavy web-apps.

I tried to quantify my unmistakable feelings with some benchmarking. I used Peacekeeper, but Firefox could not finish the benchmark and would crash! I then used the Sunspider Javascript benchmark and got a total score of 3488.8ms for Chromium and a total score of 18809.6ms for Firefox. This means that in certain cases Chromium would load something in less than one fifth of the time that Firefox 2.x will load it.

While writing this post I decided to try installing Firefox 3.5 (without add-ons) and see how that would perform. After a sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5 I could start Firefox by selecting “Shiretoko Web Browser” in the “Internet” menu. The total score was 5781.2ms, a major improvement, but still more than one and half times slower than Chromium. Its interface is also still less responsive than I would like it to be.

Another nice aspect about Chromium’s performance is that each tab is its own process. This so called Multi Process Architecture isolates problem webpages so that one Flash page crashing does not affect the other browser tabs, something that happened very often to me with Firefox.

2. Screen Real Estate
Another thing that a netbook lacks is pixels. My screen is 1024 pixels wide and 600 pixels high. Especially the lack of height is sometimes taxing. I have done a lot of things in Ubuntu to mitigate this problem (if you are interested I could write a post about that) and I had to do the same with Firefox.

In Firefox I used Tiny Menu, chose small icons, used no bookmarks and combined many toolbars into one to make sure that I have more content and less browser. To my surprise I had to do nothing with Chromium and still got a bigger canvas with a bigger font in the address bar! Compare the screenshots below to see the differences: 

 

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Firefox (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

Screenshot Chromium (click to enlarge)

 

Chromium shows more of the page and accomplishes this by doing a couple of smart things:

  • There is no status bar. I could have turned the status bar off in Firefox, but I need to see where a link is pointing to before I click on it. Chromium shows this information dynamically as soon as you hover over a link. When you don’t hover it shows nothing.
  • The tabs are moved into the title bar. It looks a bit weird for a while, but it uses some very valuable space.
  • Some things only appear when you need them. The bookmark bar, for example, only shows up when you open a new tab.

3. It is a fresh look at what a browser should/could be
Most of my time behind my computer is spent using a browser. More and more of the applications I use daily have moved into the cloud (e.g. mail and RSS reading). It is thus important to have a browser that is made to do exactly those functions.

The developers of Chromium have looked at all aspects of a traditional browser and have rethought how they work. A couple of examples:

  • The address bar is actually a tool with four functions. It contains your web history, typing some terms will execute a search in your default search engine (saving me two characters compared to how I search in Firefox), you can type a normal web address and you can use keywords to search. If I type w chromium in the address bar it will search for chromium in Wikipedia. The keyword search also works in Firefox, but Chromium has a prettier and more clear implementation.
  • When you open a new tab, you see a Dashboard of sites you use often (a variant of another Opera invention). That page also conveniently displays recently closed tabs with a link to your browsing history. The history page has excellent search (it is Google after all!) and has that simple Google look.
  • The downloads work in a particular way. They automatically save in a default location unless you tick a box confirming that you always like to open that type of file from now on. This takes a little getting used to (I like saving my downloads in different folders), but once again the download history is searchable and looks clean.

In conclusion: Chromium is a browser in which some hard choices were made. No compromises. That means that I, as a user, have to worry about less choices and settings and can focus on being more productive. Making tough interface design choices can be a very successful strategy: witness Apple’s iPod.

For now I will be using Chromium as my primary browser and will use Firefox when I need certain functionalities that only Firefox add-ons can provide.

I am looking forward to what the browser future holds!

Where is IMDB’s API?

Internet Movie Database

Internet Movie Database

I really like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It is the largest freely available database of movie related data. I use it mainly for two things:

  1. Whenever I see an actor or actress in a movie and cannot remember in which movie I have seen that person before. IMDB list all the actors/actresses in the movie and allows you to click on the name of each person. On the page of the person it will then show you all the movies in which they played a role.
  2. Whenever I am in video store and need to know whether the movie  that I am about to rent is any good. IMDB has a ratings systems that can give you a good general idea of the quality of the movie.

This post will be about the second use case. In the video store I use the Internet connection of my mobile phone. This is a tedious and often infuriating process, especially when you want to look up multiple titles. IMDB’s pages are huge (they have many images and ads), and this makes them load very slowly. In case of an ambiguous title two pages need to load before you can see the rating. Let’s look at an example. If I search for “pulp fiction” I get the following page:

IMDB results page (click to enlarge)

IMDB results page (click to enlarge)

I then have to click on the  “Pulp Fiction” link to see the IMDB page which has the rating:

Pulp Fiction at IMDB (click to enlarge)

Pulp Fiction at IMDB (click to enlarge)

After another angry session at the video store, I decided to do something about it. First I looked for a mobile version of the IMDB website. There are some available options (see here and here), but they are geared towards iPhones and don’t really work well.

Next I decided to write my own small web application and tried to find the IMDB API. It doesn’t exist! Unfortunately there is no way to easily use and re-purpose IMDB’s data. I don’t understand why some web companies (in this case Amazon) still don’t realise that this actually inhibits the building of their brands.

Luckily there is always one last option: screen scraping. I was actually willing to try and write my own parser for this (would be great practise), but found Izzysoft‘s IMDBPHP class which makes this easy work. This class allows you to get a lot of data about each movie.

After about two hours of programming I now have the following result. I call it Rent it?:

Rent it? The results for "Pulp Fiction"

Rent it? The results for "Pulp Fiction"

I tried to design it to be as fast as possible and made it fit for purpose using the following design considerations:

  • I used a big input field at the top of the screen, with a big button underneath. This input field is also shown on the results pages, so that it is always easy to start a new query. The field gets automatic focus as soon as the page finishes loading.
  • Only relevant information about each movie is shown: rating, title, year, director, run time in minutes and a user generated plot outline. The title links to the original IMDB page which will open in a new window.
  • The standard IMDB score is converted to a percentage and gets a background colour on the basis of the height of the rating. Red has a rating of less than 60% (not worth watching), whereas movies with green ratings are above 70% and could be interesting.
  • The pages are very light: no ads or images. All the processing is done on the server. If a search has many results, then this processing can still take a while. That is why the number of results are capped at five and results are cached for a week (also on the server to benefit everybody).

I hope you are willing to try it out and look forward to any of your feedback!

Try “Rent it?

Rent it? is also accessible through my mobile start page.

Written by Hans de Zwart

31-05-2009 at 19:37

Top 10 Podcasts for the Technophile

Photo by Flickr user e-magic, CC-licensed

Photo by Flickr user e-magic, CC-licensed

About two years ago I had to change the way I got to work. I used to take the train and would spend all that time reading. Suddenly I had to drive a car and it felt like I was wasting my time. That is until I found out about podcasting.

I have about ten hours of listening to fill every week and do that with the following podcasts (not in any particular order):

  • Leo Laporte has single handed created his own Netcast Network: TWiT. It is proof that it is now more than possible to create professional sounding audio (and lately even video) without breaking the bank. He does all his interviews over Skype, produces hours and hours of shows each week and is highly successful (some of his shows have around 200.000 listeners) without being big media. I listen religiously to four of his shows:
    • this WEEK in TECH (feed URL): This is the leading show that gives its name to the network. Laporte talks about the week’s tech news with luminaries like John C. Dvorak, Patrick Norton from Tekzilla, Will Harris from Channelflip and many others. The show is often hilarious with some great insights, although I can imagine it might feel like a lot of inside baseball when you don’t listen very often. My favourite regular guest is Jason Calacanis from Mahalo. He always seems to bring some outrageous humour to the show, but is also often one step ahead of the game when it comes to really understanding how business is changing because of the Internet.
    • FLOSS Weekly (feed URL): This is a show about Free, Libre, Open Source Software with Randal L. Schwartz. The show usually consists of an interview with the project lead(ers) of a big open source software project. It is a great place to learn about new projects and to get a better knowledge of how open source software development works.
    • net@night (feed URL): This show has Amber MacArthur sharing links of new websites that she encountered. Often there will be an interview with a founder of some new web 2.0 start-up. The show can be a bit light on content sometimes.
    • Security Now (feed URL): If you really want to get a better understanding of how computers work, than this is the show for you. Steve Gibson is a real old hand in the IT world (the back-end of his website is written in assembly language if I am not mistaken). The show has two types of episodes: one where Steve dives deep into a particular security related topic and one where he answers questions from his listeners.
  • Search Engine with Jesse Brown (feed URL new feed url at TVO.org): “A blog and podcast about the Internet. But not boring.” This is the podcast that I would love to make. Jesse Brown uses his audience to find stories in which the Internet has profound social effects. He really understands the Net and has the most wicked loops and intros of any podcast in this list.
  • Guardian’s Tech Weekly (feed URL): Aleks Krotoski and other Guardian journalists go through a week of tech news. It is a smoothly produced show with some interviews, a start-up elevator pitch, short news segments and sense of humour. The British focus can be refreshing.
  • Guardian’s Science Weekly (feed URL): Alok Jha must be the funniest man in science journalism. Only Brits can make a show that is incredibly entertaining and very intelligent at the same time. You can feel the love for science and the joy they have in making the show.
  • Digital Planet (feed URL): This BBC world show takes a much more international look at how technology is changing society. It has many features on the developing world and has a true journalistic BBC attitude. The resident expert Bill Thompson is a great technology critic who brings something extra.
  • These two Dutch podcasts are interesting too:
    • Radio Online (feed URL): This long running radio show always manages to entertain me. The combination of sceptic Peter de Bie and hardcore Internet journalist Francisco van Jole really works.
    • ICT Roddels (feed URL): Brenno de Winter and Gonny van der Zwaag produce this podcast. I have a lot of respect for Brenno who has his very own fearless interviewing style and is a journalist with principles. His Bigwobber site is pushing hard for open government.  The audio quality is less then the other shows that I have described but it is good enough.
  • Finally, as a bonus, two extra podcasts:
    • LugRadio (feed URL): The awesome foursome have stopped producing this great Linux show. They were completely irreverent and had some insanely hilarious segments, but also always managed to have very thoughtful and deep discussions about open source software and the open source community. It is well worth listening to the archives.
    • Ricky Gervais Podcast (available at Audible): This has nothing to do with technology, but it is probably the best comedy that is available  on audio anywhere.

I use Amarok (not the KDE4 version!) to download these podcasts and sync them with my iPod. Amarok really deserves a plug as it manages the podcasts on my iPod perfectly. Podcasts continue where I left them, get downloaded automatically when new ones arrive, get deleted from my iPod when I have listened to them completely and show the little image of the show.

I am always looking for new things to listen to and would appreciate any recommendations.

Written by Hans de Zwart

19-04-2009 at 19:52

Posted in Software

Tagged with , , ,

Presentations on Moodle 2.0 and on Moodle, Mahara and Elgg

My employer, Stoas Learning, organized a Moodle seminar today. I did two presentations in the morning (both of them in Dutch).

The first one was titled: “Moodle 2.0, een sneak preview”. I discussed the new features that will appear in Moodle 2.0 and did a quick demo of how you can use the repository API to pull in an image from Flickr, hand that in as an assignment and then push it out to GoogleDocs for savekeeping. You can find the slides below:


(view at Slideshare or download a PDF version)

The second presentation was titled: “Moodle, Elgg & Mahara – Samenwerkend Leren, Kennisdelen & Sociale Netwerken – Van Formeel naar Informeel”. I tried to use three cases to explain that e-learning can be more than just a web-based, unfacilitated, content to single learner experience. These were my slides:


(view at Slideshare or download a PDF version)

I do realise that these slides lose a lot of their meaning without my spoken words. When I posted Slideshare presentations previously, I wrote I would try and record the audio for the next time. I guess I failed…. I am sure there will be another chance.

Written by Hans de Zwart

19-03-2009 at 22:30

Corporate Social Networking Part 1: Elgg

Over the next couple of weeks I will write a series of blog posts about corporate social networking. I will be looking at some open source tools that can facilitate the creation of these kind of networks in a corporate setting and I will try and make a business case for why you want to start experimenting with these kind of tools in your company.

Elgg

Ellg.org

In this first post I will take a look at Elgg, a tool that will allow you to build your own social network. You should see it as an open source version of Facebook, Ning or Hyves. Unlike these services, Elgg will allow you to retain full control of your implementation and of your data.

Elgg has been around for a couple of years now. Recently the core developers have completely rewritten the application and version 1.0 came out on August 18th 2008. They have used the pretty standard PHP/MySQL combination to implement their own MVC framework. This will allow you to easily change the user interface without changing the functionality and makes extending the existing functionality a pain-free experience.

In 2008 Elgg won the best open source social networking award in Infoworld’s Best of Open Source Awards. Examples of Elgg sites are:

  • Community@Brighton: a social networking system for students and staff at the University of Brighton. This university has been using Elgg for quite a while now (they seem to use the old platform still), using it for blogging, sharing of different media files and for the creation of internal communities.
  • Rucku: a virtual clubhouse for rugby. Rugby enthusiasts share forums, videos and pictures. Note how even the language of the site is rugby themed (e.g. “sledge” instead of “message”).
  • Harvard University: recently some courses were taught in an Elgg environment instead of in the standard (home brew) Harvard LMS. Weekly blogging instead of threaded discussions was the central activity. This way the content of the posts stayed with the students even after the course had finished.

If I were to summarise Elgg in a couple of words I would say that the core functionality revolves around a dashboard, user profiles and groups and that these are linked through tags and a flexible access infrastructure allowing users to build their own networks.

Each user has their own dashboard. This is their launch page and contains widgets showing recent activity in the network:

The dashboard, each user has one

The dashboard, each user has one (click to enlarge)

Users can add their own widgets to this page by clicking on the “Edit page” link and using the drag and drop interface (Elgg makes extensive use of jQuery) to fashion the page to their own liking:

Adding your own widgets to the page (click to enlarge)

Adding your own widgets to the page (click to enlarge)

Developing your own widgets is trivial for any web-programmer. This will allow Elgg to play nicely with other systems (e.g. a Twitter widget already exists). The Elgg developers write on their homepage: “We are committed to open source, data portability and transparency”. Their support for OpenID, OpenSocial, openData and Elgg’s RESTful API clearly demonstrate this. Because of this it is very possible to use Elgg data inside another application.

There is a user profile for every member of the site. Users can upload their own picture and fill in a couple of profile fields. These fields can be created by the site administrator and will allow connecting different users on the basis of their interests, location or field of work for example. The user profile has the same widget based approach, so that the user can decide what people see when they view their profile:

User profile, note the Twitter widget (click to enlarge)

User profile, note the Twitter widget (click to enlarge)

One of Elgg’s most celebrated features is the way that groups can be created inside the system. Users can start their own groups around projects or communities of practice. A group has their own files, forums, activity stream and pages and can have open or closed membership:

The group homepage (click to enlarge)

The group homepage (click to enlarge)

Every thing that is added by users to the system will allow multiple tags to be attached. These tags make finding relevant materials in the network very easy:

A search for the term "Elgg" (click to enlarge)

A search for the term "Elgg" (click to enlarge)

Finally the access controls make it a snap for users to share any of their materials with the world, their friends, a particular group of friends, a group in Elgg or to keep them private. You can set these permissions for anything, be it user profile information, uploaded files or blog posts:

Tagging and providing access

Tagging and providing access

All the other functionality inside Elgg is completely modular and can be turned on or off with a couple of clicks. The main modules that are relevant for businesses are:

  • Each user can have their own blog. The blog is quite rich in functionality: it has comments, pingbacks can be installed and access to each post can be set.
  • The files repository will allow the uploading of any file type. Files can have a description and tags and their level of access can be set. Image files get special treatment, automatically allowing them to be viewed in a gallery.
  • Messaging comes in two forms. There is an internal messaging system allowing one to one private messaging and there is a facebook-like “wall” connected to the user profile page.
  • Elgg calls their wiki functionality “Pages”. It is a mix between a true wiki and a collaborative hierarchical web-page writing tool. Each page has separate access permissions for reading and for writing. A very simple revision history is kept.
  • The social bookmarking tool (including a bookmarklet) allows users to store their favourite websites and share these with selected friends. Websites can be tagged of course.
  • A user can easily update their status. Each status update is stored so that this can also function as a microblogging platform, especially in combination with the activity river which shows the most recent updates of your friends. There is a plugin that will push status updates to Twitter.
  • Many information streams inside the Elgg installation have their own RSS feeds pushing the content to your feedreader of choice.

In the next social networking post I will try to build a business case for a tool like Elgg inside corporations. Why would it be useful to have this inside your business? I can imagine that you as a reader might have ideas of what could be the added value or maybe you have some examples of businesses that are already doing this. It would be great to get your input and feedback in the comments.

Written by Hans de Zwart

18-02-2009 at 15:24

A SnapAsk Widget for Symbian S60

Answers in a snap

Answers in a snap

My favourite gadget of all time is the Psion 5MX. EPOC, its operating system, was sheer genius. It had a great interface and was a joy to use. EPOC became Symbian S80 and when the lack of Internet functionality of the Psion became too bothersome I decided to switch to a Nokia 9500, then to a Nokia E90 and now I own a Nokia E71 with Symbian S60 3rd edition.

Suddenly I find myself stuck with a smartphone that has an operating system which doesn’t leverage the keyboard of the device and is in many ways quite clunky (some options are hidden more than five layers deep). However I much prefer Symbian to the other available platforms: the iPhone is extremely nice but married to iTunes and locked down, Palm hasn’t been resurrected yet, Windows Mobile is a joke (using a pen is ridiculous in this day and age), the Neo Freerunner is too experimental, Maemo doesn’t allow me to use a SIM card and all the phones running Android that currently exist have no battery life.

I like to get the maximum potential out of all the technology that I use. I have spent quite a bit of time setting up my phone exactly the way I like it, so that I have quick access to information on the go (see for example the custom mobile start page that I created). In due time I will write a post about the programs that I use on my phone. In this post I want to focus on a small widget that I developed yesterday evening.

A couple of months ago I read a post on Lifehacker about a great service for people who own a mobile device with email capabilities: SnapAsk allows you to send an email to ask – at – snapask -dot- com with a keyword and a query in the subject line. SnapAsk will then reply to your email with an answer to your query. So “wiki Symbian” will return the Wikipedia page for Symbian and “news economic crisis” will return an email with relevant news articles. Some of the keywords are a bit US centric and don’t return proper results for me in the Netherlands (e.g. weather, traffic or flight), others are quite innovative: Know some words of a song, but can’t remember the name or who sang it? Send an email with the subject “lyrics A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of” to Snapask and you will be textually Rickrolled.

Using SnapAsk on my phone proved more difficult than I had hoped. I had to either type in the email address in the To: field or select it from my contacts, remember (the hardest part!) and type the keyword I wanted to use and finally type the query. I also learnt the other day that Nokia has decided to support widget development on their Symbian platform. So I gave in to my tinkering spirit and committed to trying to write a little widget which would make it easier to use SnapAsk on my phone.

I set the following criteria for the widget:

  • It should require the least amount of possible clicks
  • It should be as close to self explanatory as possible
  • I would have to be done with it in a couple of hours
The UI of the widget

The UI of the widget

At first I thought I would create links for each keyword and an input field for the query. The user would first click on the link with the keyword, then write the query and finally click on a link or press a button to start the email application. Later I realised that I could eliminate one step by making the keywords buttons. This way the user would only have to type in the query and select the correct keyword.

This idea required some Javascript. I have been wanting to try jQuery, so I wrote the initial implementation using that library. When I tried loading the page on my phone I learnt that jQuery seemingly was not supported by Nokia’s built-in browser. I then decided to try and write it with normal Javascript code and this worked perfect. With some CSS I managed to get the input field to be the full width of the top of the page (where the cursor is likely to be). I also made the field higher by increasing the font-size property, so that it is easy to get your cursor on it, in case it isn’t. The only thing I couldn’t manage to do was get the field to auto-focus on load. It seems that Nokia doesn’t want to support that function.

All I had to do, after finishing the HTML file (with inline CSS and Javascript), was create an XML file called info.plist with the name of the widget and its version number and an icon.png file of 88×88 pixels. I then put these three files into a folder, zipped it and changed the extension to .wgz.

The widget as an installed app

The widget as an installed app

The great thing about these widgets is that they install like any other Symbian program and can, by default, be found in the Installations directory on your phone. Ajax can be used and apparently some Javascript methods exist that allow you to map certain functions to the softkeys of the phone.

I really like how standardised web technology is becoming. This widget should run on any other device with a standards based browser and if you keep the structure of the page simple and clean you can expect each individual mobile browser to display the page optimally.

My employer has standardised on Symbian smartphones for all their consultants. It should be relatively easy for them to develop a highly relevant widget that will enable me to do my work better and more efficiently. I have to say I am bit puzzled about the fact that Nokia is not pushing this concept a bit harder. Where is the Nokia Widget Store?

I would love for people to use the widget and give me some feedback on whether they like it:

Download the Widget
(or try in your browser if you don’t have a Symbian phone)

If you know of any other interesting widgets for Symbian please let me know!

Written by Hans de Zwart

11-02-2009 at 22:43

Why we should stop using Twitter and switch over to Laconica

The biggest implementation of Laconica

The biggest implementation of Laconica

A lot of my colleagues at Stoas Learning including myself are having a lot of fun using the microblogging service Twitter. It has changed the social interaction between some of the team members and we have gotten to know each other better through a very simple service delivering 140 character messages at a time.

I like the service a lot but have been worried about one thing: the fact that all this information is only on Twitter’s server. This point is extra poignant whenever Twitter is down (which happens quite often).

Imagine a world in which people with a Hotmail email address could only email somebody if they also had a Hotmail address. There would be no way for somebody who is registered at Gmail to email somebody at Yahoo. Luckily this is not the case: email is collection of open protocols which can be implemented by anybody. Unfortunately we cannot say the same about instant messaging. I personally have a MSN account, a Skype account and a Yahoo account and there is no way for me to talk to a Skype user with my MSN account.

So what about microblogging? Will we go towards a future which is similar to instant messaging with multipke microblogging services which are not connected to each other? Will Twitter be so dominant that there will be no alternative (creating a monopoly with all its disadvantages)? Or will we move towards a future where microblogging is like email: you can choose the provider you want and connect to people using other providers?

I prefer the last option and feel that I should be principled about it. That is why I will stop using Twitter, temporarily abandoning the people I follow and the people that follow me and switch over to Identi.ca, currently the largest Laconica installation. Here is how Identi.ca explains in what way it is different from services like Twitter:

Identi.ca is an Open Network Service. Our main goal is to provide a fair and transparent service that preserves users’ autonomy. In particular, all the software used for Identi.ca is Free Software, and all the data is available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, making it Open Data.

The software also implements the OpenMicroBlogging protocol, meaning that you can have friends on other microblogging services that can receive your notices.

The goal here is autonomy — you deserve the right to manage your own on-line presence. If you don’t like how Identi.ca works, you can take your data and the source code and set up your own server (or move your account to another one).

I will spend the next couple of weeks trying to convince everybody around me to make the switch and maybe even get Stoas to start its own Laconica server.

If you are interested in hearing more about Identi.ca and Laconica I can recommend episode 37 of Floss Weekly where Evan Prodromou, the creator of both is interviewed and explains how Laconica works and what the plans for the future are.

Written by Hans de Zwart

07-09-2008 at 11:05

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