Posts Tagged ‘google reader’
A couple of weeks ago I forgot my iPad on the train.
After getting over the initial overwhelming feelings of idiocy on my part, I started thinking a bit deeper about the consequences and whether I had taken sensible precautions to mitigate those consequences.
A couple of problems dawned on me:
- I had lost something that is quite valuable (one colleague told me with some measure of sincerity: “Nice gift for somebody else”. I don’t spend €700 casually and was distressed about losing something that is worth that much.
- More important than the device is the data that is on it. There are two potential problems here. The first is that you might have lost access to data that is important to you. The second is that somebody else suddenly might have gained access to your data. Both of these made me feel very uncomfortable.
- Finally, losing the device made it clear to me that all iPads look alike, especially in their locked state, and that there is no way for an honest finder to know who the rightful owner of the device is.
So here is my advice on how to minimize these problems. I recommend for you to apply these immediately if you haven’t done so already.
- Fully insure your device (I had actually done this). Even though this is prohibitively expensive and even though you really shouldn’t insure devices if you can afford to replace them yourself (those insurance companies have to live of something), I still think it is a good idea as there are so many things that can go wrong with it, just through bad luck. I take the cost of the insurance into account when buying the tablet and amortize that over two to three years.
- Ask yourself this question: Could I throw my current device in the water, walk over to any random computer with a browser and an Internet connection and access all the data that matters to me from there? If next, you would get a new device, would you be able to easily get that data back on the device? If your answer is no to either of these questions you should change your strategy. Some people might think I ask for too much as they are happy to backup to iTunes. I prefer to be as independent from iTunes as possible (I only use it for updates) and think most people would still lose a couple of days of data if all they had was an iTunes backup. Even before I lost my iPad, I was ok in this area. Here are some of the things that I have done: I like to have all my data in apps that keep both a local copy (for when I am offline) and transparently sync to the cloud. For email, contacts and my calendar that is easy: I use Google Apps for my domain and set it up to sync (you have your own domain right?). My task are managed with ToodleDo. My news reader of choice is Google Reader. All my notes are done with Momo. I have copies of my most important documents synced in a Dropbox folder. Dropbox also provides the syncing architecture for my iThoughts mindmaps and for the large collection of PDFs I have sitting the Goodreader app. I buy my ebooks DRM free and read them with Goodreader or I get books as a service through the Amazon Kindle bookstore. Apple now allows easy redownload of the apps you have purchased in the past.
- Make sure you set a passcode on your iPad (this I had done too). I’ve set it up so that it only comes on after a couple of minutes of being in standby mode. This why I get to keep some of the instant on and off convenience, but also know that if somebody steals it from my bag they won’t just be able to access my data. One thing I am still not sure about is how secure the passcode lock is. What happens when people try to connect a stolen iPad to their iTunes? Is there access to the data?
Apple provides a free Find my iPad service. I had never bothered to set it up, but have since found out that it literally only takes two minutes to do. Once you have it installed you will be able to see where your iPad is, send a message to the iPad and even wipe its contents remotely. All of this can only work once your iPad has an Internet connection though.
- Finally, I have downloaded a free iPad wallpaper and have used GIMP to add my contact information on top of the wallpaper file (making sure not to put the info underneath the dialog that asks for the passcode. This way, when somebody with good intentions finds the iPad they will have an easy way to find out who the rightful owner is.
To finish the story: a couple of days after I lost my iPad I called the railway company to see if they had some news for me (I had asked them to try and locate it as soon as I realized it was missing). They told me a fellow traveler had brought in my iPad to the service desk and that I could pick it up. Unfortunately, I have no way of thanking this honest person, other than by writing this post.
Every week I will try and write down some reflections on the Open Online Course: Learning and Knowledge Analytics. These will by written for myself as much as for anybody else, so I have to apologise in advance about the fact that there will be nearly no narrative and a mix between thoughts on the contents of the course and on the process of the course.
So what do I have to write about this week?
My tooling for the course
There is a lot of stuff happening in these distributed courses and keeping up with the course required some setup and preparation on my side (I like to call that my “tooling”). So what tools do I use?
A lot of new materials to read are created every day: Tweets with the #lak11 hashtag, posts in all the different Moodle forums, Google groups and Learninganalytics.net messages from George Siemens and Diigo/Delicious bookmarks. Thankfully all of these information resources create RSS feeds and I have been able to add them all to special-made Lak11 folder in my Google Reader (RSS feed). That folder sorts its messages based on time (oldest first) allowing me some understanding of the temporal aspects of the course and making sure I read a reply after the original message. A couple of times a day I use the excellent MobileRSS reader on my iPad to read through all the messages.
There is quite a lot of reading to do. At the beginning of the week I read through the syllabus and make sure that I download all the PDF files to GoodReader on the iPad. All web articles are stored for later reading using the Instapaper service. I have given both GoodReader and Instapaper Lak11 folders. I do most of the reading of these articles on the train. GoodReader allows me to highlight passages and store bookmarks in the PDF file itself. With Instapaper thus is a bit more difficult: when I read a very interesting paragraph I have to highlight it and email it to myself for later processing.
Each and every resource that I touch for the course gets its own bookmark on Diigo. Next to the relevant tags for the resource I also tag them with lak11 and weekx (where x is the number of the week) and share them to the Learning Analytics group on Diigo. These will provide me with a history of the interesting things I have seen during the course and should help me in writing a weekly reflective post.
So far the “consumer” side of things. As a “producer” I participate in the Moodle forums. I can easily find back all my own posts through my Moodle profile and I hope to use some form of screen-scraper at the end of the course to pull a copy of everything that I have written. I use this Worpress.com hosted blog to write and reflect on the course materials and tag my course-related post with “lak11″ so that show up on their own page (and have their own feed in case you are interested). On Twitter I occasionally tweet with #lak11, mostly to refer to a Moodle- or blog post that I have written or to try and ask the group a direct question.
What is missing? The one thing that I don’t use yet is something like a mind mapping or a concept mapping tool. The syllabus recommends VUE and CMAP and one of the assignments each week is to keep updating a map for the course. These tools don’t seem to have an iPad equivalent. There is some good mind mapping tools for the iPad (my favourite is probably iThoughtsHD, watch this space for a mind mapping comparison of iPad apps), but I don’t seem to be able to add using it into my workflow for the course. Maybe I should just try a little harder.
My inability to “skim and dive”
This week I reconfirmed my inability to “skim and dive”. For these things I seem to be an all or nothing guy. There are magazines that I read completely from the first page to the last page (e.g. Wired). This course seems to be one of these things too. I read every single thing. It is a bit much currently, but I expect the volume of Moodle and Twitter messages to go down quite significantly as the course progresses. So if I can just about manage now, it should become relatively easy later on.
The readings of this week
There were quite a few academic papers in the readings of this week. Most of them provided an overview of education datamining or academic/learning analytics. Many of the discussions in these papers seemed quite nominal to me. They probably are good references to keep and have a wealth of bibliographical materials that I could look at at some point in the future. For now, they lacked any true new insights for me and appeared to be pretty basic.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend any of the Elluminate sessions and I haven’t listened to them yet either. I hope to catch up this week with the recordings and maybe even attend the guest speaker live tomorrow evening.
It has been a while since I last actively participated in a Moodle facilitated course. Moodle has again proven to be a very effective host for forum based discussions. One interesting Moodle add-on that I had not seen before is Marginalia a way to annotate forum posts in Moodle itself which can be private or public. Look at the following Youtube video to see it in action.
I wonder if I will use it extensively in the next few weeks.
One thing that we were asked to try out as an activity was Hunch. For me it was interesting to see all the different interpretations that people in the course had about how to pick up this task and what the question (What are the educational uses of a Hunch-like tool for learning?) actually meant. A distributed course like this creates a lot of redundancy in the answers. I also noted that people kept repeating a falsehood (needing to use Twitter/Facebook to log in). My explanation of how Hunch could be used by the weary was not really picked up. It is good to be reminded at times that most people in the world do not share my perspective on computers and my literacy with the medium. Thinking otherwise is a hard to escape consequence of living in a techno-bubble with the other “digerati”.
I wrote the following on the topic (in the Moodle forum for week 1):
Indeed the complete US-centricness of the service was the first thing that I noticed. I believe it asked me at some point on what continent I am living. How come it still asks me questions to which I would never have an answer? Are these questions crowdsourced too? Do we get them randomly or do we get certain questions based on our answers? It feels like the former to me.
The recommendations that it gave me seemed to be pretty random too. The occasional hit and then a lot of misses. I had the ambition to try out the top 5 music albums it would recommend me, but couldn’t bear the thought of listening to all that rock. This did sneak a little thought into my head: could it be that I am very special? Am I so eclectic that I can defeat all data mining effort. Am I the Napoleon Dynamite of people? Of course I am not, but the question remains: does this work better for some people than for others.
One other thing that I noticed how the site seemed to use some of the tricks of an astrologer: who wouldn’t like “Insalata Caprese”, seems like a safe recommendation to me.
In the learning domain I could see an application as an Electronic Performance Support System. It would know what I need in my work and could recommend the right website to order business cards (when it sees I go to a conference) or an interesting resource relating to the work that I am doing. Kind of like a new version of Clippy, but one that works.
BTW, In an earlier blogpost I have written about how recommendation systems could turn us all into mussels (although I don’t really believe that).
Because of a very good intervention by George Siemens, the main facilitator of the course, we are now starting to have a good discussion about analytics in corporate situations here. The corporate world has learning as a secondary process (very much as a means to a goal) and that creates a slightly different viewpoint. I assume the corporate people will form their own subgroup in some way in this course. Before the end of next week I will attempt to flesh out some more use cases following Bert De Coutere’s examples here.
Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors Lunch and Learn
At the end of January I will be attending a free Bersin/KnowledgeAdvisors lunch and learn titled Innovation in Learning Measurement – High Impact Measurement Framework in London (this is one day before the Learning Technologies 2011 exhibit/conference). I would love to meet other Lak11 participants there. Will that happen?
My participation in numbers
Every week I will try and give a numerical update about my course participation. This week I bookmarked 33 items on Diigo, wrote 10 Lak11 related tweets, wrote 25 Moodle forums post and 2 blog posts.
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. This month we write about how the constant flux of new apps and platforms influences your workflow. We do this by (re-)viewing our workflow from different perspectives. After a general introduction we write a paragraph of 200 words each from the perspective of 1. apps, 2. platform and 3. workflow itself. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
To me a workflow is about two things mainly: the ability to capture things and the ability to time-shift. Both of these need to be done effectively and efficiently. So let’s take a look at three separate processes and see how they currently work for me: task/todo management, sharing with others and reading news and interesting articles (not books). So how do I work nowadays for each of these three things?
I use Toodledo for my task/todo management. Whenever I “take an action” or think of something that I need to do at some point in the future I fire up Toodledo and jot it down. Each item is put in a folder (private, work, etc.), gets a due date (sometimes with a timed reminder to email if I really cannot forget to do it) and is given a priority (which I usually ignore). At the beginning and end of every day I run through all the tasks and decide in my head what will get done.
For me it important to share what I encounter on the web and my thoughts about that with the rest of the world. I do this in a couple of different ways: explicitly through Twitter, through Twitter by using a Bit.ly sidebar in my Browser, in Yammer if it is purely for work, on this WordPress.com blog, through public bookmarks on Diigo, by sending a direct email or by clicking the share button in Google Reader.
I have subscribed to 300+ RSS feeds and often when I am scanning them and find something interesting and I don’t have the opportunity to read it at that time. I use Instapaper to capture these articles and make them available for easy reading later on. Instapaper doesn’t work with PDF based articles so I send those to a special email address so that I can pick them up with my iPad and save them to GoodReader when it is convenient.
“Platform” can have multiple meanings. The operating system was often called a platform. When you heavily invested into one platform it would become difficult to do any of your workflows with a different platform (at my employer this has been the case for many years with Microsoft and Exchange: hard to use anything else). Rich web applications have now turned the Internet itself into a workflow platform. This makes the choice for an operating system nearly, if not totally, irrelevant. I regularly use Ubuntu (10.04, too lazy to upgrade so far), Windows Vista (at work) and iOS (both on the iPhone and the iPad). All of the products and services mentioned either have specialised applications for the platform or are usable through any modern web browser. The model I prefer right now is one where there is transparent two-way synching between a central server/service and the different local apps, allowing me access to my latest information even if I am not online (Dropbox for example uses this model and is wonderful).
What I have noticed though, is that I have strong preferences for using a particular platform (actually a particular device) for doing certain tasks. The iPad is my preference for any reading of news or of articles: the “paginate” option on Instapaper is beautiful. Sharing is best done with something that has a decent keyboard and Toodledo is probably used the most with my iPhone because that is usually closest at hand.
Sharing is a good example of something where the app drives my behaviour very much: the app where I initially encounter the thing I want to share needs to support the sharing means of choice. This isn’t optimal at all: if I read something interesting in MobileRSS on the iPad that I want to share on Yammer, then I usually email the link from MobileRSS to my work email address, once at work I copy it from my mail client into the Browser version of Yammer and add my comments. This is mainly because Yammer (necessarily) has to be a closed off to the rest of the world with its APIs.
Services that create the least hickups in my workflow are those that have a large separation between the content/data of the service and the interface. Google Reader and Toodledo both provide very complete APIs that allow anybody to create an app that accesses the data and displays it in a smart way. The disadvantage of these services is that I am usually dependent on a single provider for the data. In the long term this is probably not sustainable. Things like Unhosted are already pointing to the future: an even stricter separation between data and app. Maybe in that future, the workflow can start driving the app instead of the other way around.
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. In our previous post we tried to argue whether you could engineer serendipity. The conclusion was: no, you cannot engineer serendipity (on the web). In this post we use the same recipe to investigate the corollary: the (social) web is hindering serendipity by clustering and clumping similar information around our web presence based on our online behaviour (e.g. the social graph). You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
In my teens I went to a Montessori high school in Amsterdam Zuid. The school is known for its liberal and cultural approach to education. My friends and I all thought we were free thinkers and radicals. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I learned at the college for PE teacher education that not all people had the “VPRO gids” at home and read the “Volkskrant”. It suddenly dawned on me how silo-ed my experience at high school had been and how similar we all were in our drive to be different. Occasionally I get the feeling that I am in a very similar position in my current educational technology profession.
The current toolset on the web helps us find people that are like ourselves, recommends us books that are similar to the ones we have already read and amplifies our existing opinions by aligning them to people who think the same as us. There are no tools to do the opposite: find people who are very different from you or content that gives new perspectives. In this post I would like to give a couple of examples of how the web helps in turning us into mussels (sessile animals that like being close to each other).
Example 1: The concept of RSS and Google Reader
Every day I spent 30 to 60 minutes reading my news feeds through Google Reader. I have subscribed to over 300 feeds and try to not miss any news items from about 100 of them. These feeds are very specific (one of the affordances of RSS is that it can easily be generated based on tags or search words). None of them carry general world news. Instead of reading the Guardian’s most important world news, I read the Guardian news that is tagged with Royal Dutch Shell. Instead of general feeds about the state of education and learning I read the posts of certain learning gurus. This means that on my Google Reader news from the last couple of days there was no way for me to encounter the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (I only learned about it by looking it up just now), whereas I read about Facebook’s new messaging system at least three different times (here, here and here) with very similar perspectives each time.
Google is also willing to suggest some new feeds for me to subscribe to. As of today the first four suggested sources that Google gives me are as follows:
More of the same! Wouldn’t it be way more beneficial for me to be confronted with people, opinions and news that is very different from the things I already know? It seems like there isn’t enough semantic understanding of the things that I am reading to be able to tell me: “You always read news about Shell on the Guardian, the Financial Times usually has a very different perspective”. How far off do you think we are before that becomes a reality?
Example 2: Amazon suggestions
Amazon was one of the first companies that made use of its customer’s behaviour to improve the service to that same customer. When you browse at Amazon they track everything, not just your purchases, but also your browsing history, the links you click, the reviews you read and write, the books you don’t buy and probably how much time you spend doing each of these things. They use this data and correlate it with other people’s data to be able to suggest a couple of books that should interest you.
I haven’t bought at Amazon for a while (I now buy my books at Book Depository as they ship for free), but my current suggestions do include titles like Drive (which I am reading right now), Free and Growing Up Digital (and many other similar titles that I have already read). These books increase my specialization in the field of Internet and educational technology. There is no way for me to try and find books on Amazon that can function as a bridge to other genres.
There also is no way to really browse serendipitously. Like RSS, the categorization of the books is incredibly specific. Much more than in a traditional book store. On Amazon I would be able to go to one of my favourite subjects cognitive psychology (finding more than 8000 titles), whereas in a book store I would have to go to “popular science”. The latter forces me to run into books in fields of science that I wouldn’t usually look at. A book shelve also has a nicer (and faster!) browsing experience: running with a finger past all the books, taking one out and quickly scanning its contents all do not work on Amazon.
Example 3: Anglo-Saxon focus through the English language and through Silicon Valley based innovation
Silicon valley seems to be a village. I listen to Leo Laporte’s podcasts (e.g. This Week in Tech), read TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and am inundated with news about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and mobile phone carriers in the US. A lot of the web technology innovation is indeed driven by companies in Silicon valley and innovative start-ups from all over the world flock to California to be successful (see here for an example). But it does leave me wondering whether I am not missing out on a large part of the technium by not being able to read Japanese, Mandarin, German, etc. Through Western (English) media I have learned that Japan has a very specific mobile phone culture. But in all ways I am completely disconnected from it.
To experience how true this is, I would like you to do the following assignment: Use Google to try and find three sites in Japanese about technology culture. Let me know in the comments how that went…
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 the 37signals book Rework. Each of us will write about the three things in the book that we already do, about three things we will do from now on going forward and about three things that we wish our employers would do from now on. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals and Ruby on Rails fame have just written a new book titled: Rework (you can download a free PDF excerpt). Reading it gave me an ambivalent feeling: these authors are obviously very good in what they do and they have managed to build a successful business monetizing different parts of their talents, but the book feels like a monetization effort too and the number of words per Euro are very low. Arjen Vrielink has written a quite damning review on Goodreads.
Nonetheless it has some interesting lessons to offer. It has about 100 pieces of advice for people starting their own business or working in a business. Some of the advice I already practice, some advice I will try to practice from now on and I wish that the company I work for would practice some of the advice going forward.
Three chapters about things I already do:
Build an audience (page 170)
Traditional PR and marketing is about going out and trying to reach people. The ubiquity of the Internet allows you to let people come to you instead of the other way around.
When you build an audience, you don’t have to buy people’s attention – they give it to you. This is huge advantage.
So build an audience. Speak, write, blog, tweet, make videos – whatever. Share information that’s valuable and you’ll slowly but surely build a loyal audience. Then when you need to get the word out, the right people will already be listening.
Emulate chefs (page 176)
In this chapter the authors make a case for sharing everything you know, something which is anathema in the business world. They use famous chefs as an analogy. The best chefs share their most valuable recipes in their cookbooks. Why? Because they know that their business as a whole cannot be copied. What better way to show you are an excellent cook, then by sharing your recipes?
I am convinced that there are only benefits to sharing everything I know about educational technology and innovation with anybody who is willing to listen. Doing this is the only way to take part in the incredibly valuable discourse on this topic and taking as much out of it as possible.
Forget about formal education (page 215)
Companies still over-value formal education from. I have personally decided to attend as little formal education as possible from here on further. The key qualities that somebody needs to have are curiosity and the ability to learn. If you combine these two, then there is a whole world out there from which you educate yourself. You don’t have to go and sit in a stuffy classroom and listen to some academic lecturing. Don’t get me wrong: academics are hugely valuable. It is just that you don’t have to join a university to engage with them.
Three chapters about things I will try to do from now on:
Embrace constraints (page 67)
This chapter starts as follows:
“I don’t have enough time/money/people/experience.” Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.
This is a principle that I am already highly aware of (it is actually embedded in every introduction to any Parallax post on this blog). It is not something I am naturally good in though. I love gadgets and these things often create a lot of extra affordances and thus complexity. I need to tone this down to allow a better focus on things that really matter. First step: “downgrade” my current Ubuntu 10.04 setup which allows me a lot of flexibility (and gives me wobbly windows, that’s not me by the way) to the Ubuntu Netbook edition.
Focus on what won’t change (page 85)
This is probably advice that anybody tasked with working on innovation should heed to. Naturally we like to be focussed on the next big thing. The danger is that you will focus on fashion instead of on substance.
The core of your business should be built around things that won’t change. Things that people are going to want today and ten years from now. Those are the things you should invest.
I will try and use this advice while thinking about the next iteration of our learning landscape. Which aspects are lasting needs and wishes and which are just fads?
Interruption is the enemy of productivity (page 104)
I work in an office with about 10 other colleagues (if everybody is in). During a working day I receive about 50 emails in my work Outlook inbox and have multiple instant messaging conversations. This means that I barely have a couple of minutes without any interruptions. I have to admit that I am probably the cause of many interruptions too, as I constantly share the things I find fascinating or funny with my co-workers.
This is definitely not beneficial for my ability to do work on things that require a bit more concentration and need me to be focussed. It takes a lot of time to write anything which is more than a page of two for example. Usually I can only do it if I work from home and I turn Outlook off. From now on I will try to block a couple of hours every week during which I will sit by myself, turn off my phones, IM and email, refuse to look at Google Reader and just work.
It is as the authors say:
Your day in under siege by interruptions. It’s on you to fight back.
Three chapters about things I wish my employer would do going forward:
Meetings are toxic (page 108, available in the free excerpt)
This one is pretty obvious, but we still have a complete meeting culture. Everybody knows that meetings are not very effective at what their intent is to do and still we have way to many. Some of the reasons the authors give for why meetings are this bad are:
- They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute
- They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.
- They often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
- Meetings procreate. One meeting leads to another meeting leads to another…
If you still need to have a meeting I like their simple rules:
- Set a timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
- Invite as few people as possible.
- Always have a clear agenda.
- Begin with a specific problem.
- Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room. Point to real things and suggest real changes.
- End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.
I think we are especially guilty of inviting too many people to meetings and I would love to meet at the site of a problem instead of a conference room, but am not sure how this is done with IT related issues.
Don’t write it down (page 164)
We spend an inordinate amount of time capturing everything everybody says, needs and wants. We have hundreds of Excel files containing lists of requirements, feature/enhancements requests, issues, etc. We probably spend more time managing these spreadsheets than working on the issues that these spreadsheets are an abstraction of.
There’s no need for a spreadsheet, database, or filing system. The requests that really matter are the ones you’ll hear over and over. After a while, you won’t be able to forget them. Your customers will be your memory. They’ll keep reminding you. They’ll show you which things you truly need to worry about.
Don’t scar on the first cut (page 260)
The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.
This is how bureaucracies are born according to the authors. They consider policies “organizational scar tissue”. I work for a company that, like most other I am sure, is very scarred. Let’s all stop scarring it more!
I have to admit that a list of three was severely limiting when it came to wishes for my employer. I would have like to have the opportunity to add: Ignore the real world (page 13), Illusions of agreement (page 97), Hire managers of one (page 220) and They’re not thirteen (page 255).
Jane Hart does the educational technology community a big favour by compiling top 10 lists of learning tools which are send to her by educational professionals from around the world. She creates a top 100 list that is an interesting reflection of current (and past) popular technology in education and learning.
Each year you get a chance to update your own list. I haven’t done that this year, so here goes:
- Moodle – This open source course management system is still very much my bread and butter and has led me into the free software world. Its community of teachers and its enlightened leadership is second to none.
- Google Reader – The only way that I am able to keep up with the things that I want to read. Outsourcing my subscriptions and read/unread statusses to Google makes it possible for me to use my laptop, my cellphone or any random computer and see the same information.
- Ubuntu – My operating system of choice. Not only does it give me the freedom to use it how I want, it is also the source of much learning about how computers work. I see it as a critical enabler.
- Google Search – Still the best search technology around. I have a couple of stock queries that I do all the time like “better than x” if I want to find an alternative to x and I can usually find what I need in one or two queries.
- Wikipedia – More and more the easiest way to find a piece of factual information. I use a lot of materials from the Wikimedia Commons in most things that I create. Wikipedia has been decisive in many kitchen table arguments.
- WordPress – I have been blogging for over a year now and the process of writing for an audience has forced me to think deeper about my profession. Writing blogs could a central part of many courses. It really is a heavily underutilised pedagogical tool. I have to admit I don’t run my own installation, but trust the excellent WordPress.com service.
- Chromium – Most of the work that on do on my computer is done in a browser window. Google’s open source effort is now my default browser. This is mainly because of it’s amazing speed and the Omnibox. Read this blog post for more of my reasons.
- LAMP = Apache, MySQL, PHP – This technology makes it trivial for a non-programmer like me to create my own tools that do what I need them do. Using the APIs of the different web services I can create my own mashups.
- Youtube – This has become an indispensable resource. Stuck in a level on a Nintendo DS game? Type the games name and a level to see a walk through. There are endless tutorials on anything that you might want to learn.
- Delicious – The social bookmarking site not only remembers all I have seen that is interesting on the net, but it is also an excellent way of finding many good sites on a topic. My slowly expanding network of del.icio.us friend tag interesting pages for me to look at.
It wasn’t intentional, but I now notice that the only things that are not web applications are an operating and a browser (the bare essentials). That must be of some significance!
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.
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:
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:
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!