Technology, Innovation, Education

"technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice"

Posts Tagged ‘ubuntu

Workflow Driven Apps Versus App Driven Workflow

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.

Instapaper on my iPhone

Instapaper on my iPhone

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?

Workflow
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
“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.

Apps
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.

Written by Hans de Zwart

17-01-2011 at 10:00

The Future State of Capability Building in Organizations: Inspirations

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

CC-licenced photo by Flickr user kevindooley

I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:

What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?

Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:

Humanistic design
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.

Learning theory
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).

Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.

Working smarter
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.

Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.

The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.

I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?

ReWork Rehashed

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.

Rework

Rework

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).

Written by Hans de Zwart

06-06-2010 at 10:00

The Influence of a Workspace On Performance

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 influence of a workspace on performance. The discussion should build on the ideas set forth in a previous parallax post Planning your Career or the Boundary between Private and Professional life. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.

I have written before about the direct influence of our environment on our behaviour. I think learning professionals can learn a lot from people like Hans Monderman. This traffic engineer looked with a fresh eye at how people and technology relate to each other. This led to some ground-breaking traffic concepts (quote from Wikipedia):

His most famous design approach is Shared Space, also known as designing for negotiation or Shared Streets. Monderman found that the traffic efficiency and safety of urban streets improved when the street and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others. Shared Space designs typically call for removing regulatory traffic control features (such as kerbs, lane markings, signs and lights) and replacing intersections with roundabouts.

The Architecture of Happiness

The Architecture of Happiness

Our surroundings change who we are. I was therefore delighted to learn that Alain de Botton has written a book about exactly this topic, applying it to the architectural domain: The Architecture of Happiness. In it he writes about one of my favourite architectural topics: Le Corbusier and his plans for the Radiant City:

By building upwards, two problems would be resolved at a stroke: overcrowding and urban sprawl. With room enough for everyone in towers, there would be no need for cities to spread outwards and devour the countryside in the process. ‘We must eliminate the suburbs,’ recommend Le Corbusier, whose objection was as much based on his hatred of what he took to be the narrow mental outlook of suburbanites as on the aesthetics of their picket-fenced villas. In the new kind of city, the pleasures of the town would be available to all. Despite a population density of 1,000 per hectare, everyone would be comfortably housed. Even the concierge would have his own study, added Le Corbusier.

There would be ample green space as well, as up to 50 per cent of urban land would be devoted to parks – for, as the architect put it, ‘the sports ground must be at the door of the house.’ What was more, the new city would not merely have parks; it would itself be a vast park, with large towers dotted among the trees. On the roofs of the apartment blocks, there would be games of tennis, and sunbathing on the shores of the artificial beaches.

Simultaneously, Le Corbusier planned to abolish the city street: ‘Our streets no longer work. Streets are an obsolete notion. There ought not to be such things as streets; we have to create something that will replace them.’ He witheringly pointed out that the design of Paris’s street plan dated from the middle of the sixteenth century, when ‘the only wheeled traffic consisted of two vehicles, the Queen’s coach and that of the Princess Diane.’ He resented the fact that the legitimate demands of both cars and people were constantly and needlessly compromised, and he therefore recommended that the two henceforth be separated. In the new city, people would have footpaths all to themselves, winding through woods and forests (‘No pedestrian will ever meet an automobile, ever!’), while cars would enjoy massive and dedicated motorways, with smooth, curving interchanges, thus guaranteeing that no driver would ever have to slow down for the sake of a pedestrian. [..]

The division of cars and people was but one element in Le Corbusier’s plan for a thoroughgoing reorganisation of the life in the new city. All functions would now be untangled. There would no longer be factories, for example, in the middle of residential areas, thus no more forging of iron while children were trying to sleep nearby.

This rational (at first sight) design for cities has an intuitive appeal. It is therefore not surprising that many municipalities have created whole neighbourhoods according to Le Corbusier’s principles. I have worked in one of these neighbourhoods for many years: the Bijlmer. The Bijlmer can be considered an urban design failure. Its giant apartment flats have mostly been demolished or rebuilt within the first 30 years of their existence.

Urban planners could (should?) have known better. Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, delivering a damning critique of Le Corbusier’s idea of separating the different functions of a city. De Botton writes it down very elegantly too (apologies for another long quote, I think they are worthwhile though!):

Ironically, what Le Corbusier’s dreams helped to generate were the dystopian housing estates that now ring historic Paris, the waste lands from which tourist avert their eyes in confused horror and disbelief on their way into the city. To take an overland train to the most violent and degraded of these places is to realise all that Le Corbusier forgot about architecture and, in a wider sense, about human nature.

For example, he forgot how tricky it is when just a few of one’s 2,699 neighbours decide to throw a party or buy a handgun. He forgot how drab reinforced concrete can seem under a grey sky. He forgot how awkward it is when someone lights a fire in the lift and home is on the fourty-fourth floor. He forgot, too, that while there is much to have about slums, one things we don’t mind about them is their street plan. We appreciate buildings which form continuous lines around us and make us feel as safe in the open air as we do in a room. There is something enervating about a landscape neither predominantly free of buildings nor tightly compacted, but littered with towers distributed without respect for edges or lines, a landscape which denies us the true pleasures of both nature and urbanisation. And because such an environment is uncomfortable, there is always a greater risk that people will respond abusively to it, that they will come to the ragged patches of earth between their towers and urinate on tyres, burn cars, inject drugs – and express all the darkest sides of their nature against which the scenery can mount no protest.

In his haste to distinguish cars from pedestrians, Le Corbusier also lost sight of the curious codependence of these two apparently antithetical forces. He forgot that without pedestrians to slow them down, cars are apt to go too fast and kill their drivers, and that without the eyes of cars on them, pedestrians can feel vulnerable and isolated. We admire New York precisely because the traffic and crowds have been coerced into a difficult but fruitful alliance.

A city laid out on apparently rational grounds, where different specialised facilities (the houses, the shopping centre, the library) are separated from one another across a vast terrain connected by motorways, deprives its inhabitants of the pleasure of incidental discoveries and presupposes that we march from place to place with a sense of unflagging purpose. But whereas we may leave the house with the ostensible object of consulting a book in a library, we may nevertheless be delighted on the way by the sight of the fishmonger laying out his startled, bug-eyed catch on sheets of ice, by workmen, hoisting patterned sofas into apartment blocks, by leaves opening their tender green palms to the spring sunshine, or by a girl with chestnut hair and glasses reading a book at the bus stop.

The addition of shops and offices adds a degree of excitement to otherwise inert, dormitory areas. Contact, even of the most casual kind, with commercial enterprises gives us a transfusion of an energy we are not always capable of producing ourselves. Waking up isolated and confused at three in the morning, we can look out of the window and draw solace from the blinking neon signs in a storefront across the road, advertising bottled beer or twenty-four-hour pizza and, in their peculiar way, evoking a comforting human presence through the paranoid early hours.

All of this, Le Corbusier forgot – as architects often will.

This is a very long pre-amble to the topic at hand: how the workspace can affect performance.

Shell's Learning Centre in Rijswijk

Shell's Learning Centre in Rijswijk

Most of my time I work in an office in Rijswijk that has been designed by David Leon. The longer I work there, the more impressed I have become by the attention to detail of its indoor design. The designers obviously have a very deep understanding of how people work nowadays and have created a work environment that enables people to get the best out of their day. How is this done?

  • The office space is open (no cubicles), but permanent storage areas and desks have been placed in such a way that privacy is ensured.
  • There are a multitude of different flexible rooms available: cockpits for one person (ideal for when you need to concentrate on getting something done), small rooms with two low chairs (great for having an informal chat), rooms with a table and a cornered bench (excellent for small brainstorms) and bigger rooms with oval meeting tables (sometimes with video calling facility). We even have rooms with wacky furniture to get the creativity going.
  • Connectivity in each room and at each desk. There are docking stations everywhere and each room has a speaker phone.
  • There is a lot of transparency: doors are made of glass and most meeting rooms are like semi-fishbowls with one or more walls completely done in glass.
  • The finishing is meticulous and natural. The orange colour is relaxing, cupboards have a wood finishing and in the heavy traffic areas (where carpeting can’t work) there are beautiful black natural stone tiles.
  • The overall layout allows small work communities (10-20 people) to form naturally. These work communities then share elevators, toilets, kitchen areas, allowing for broader networking too.

There are many similarities with the post I wrote about planning your career. Many of the things that keep you in the “Hooray!” zone on a career (macro level) are also relevant on the micro level when it comes to doing day-to-day work. Transparency, flexibility, the opportunities for networking and the use of technology are what make my office great.

People, Place, Process

People, Place, Process by David Leon

My company seems to understand this too. There is a reason why they hired David Leon, who write on their website:

Innovation depends on bright people. These people cost more and are far more valuable than the buildings they occupy… but it is a proven fact that the environment in which they work has a major impact on their effectiveness.

For that reason we design workplaces and buildings round the needs of people and the business aims of their organisations.

It is therefore stupefying that I am forced to use a locked down version of Microsoft Windows 2000 with Internet Explorer 6 as a primary workspace every single day of my working life (currently all employees are migrating to a locked down version MS Vista, this should be finished by the end of the first quarter). I think this is a big mistake and know that many people are not as productive as they could have been because of this.

I estimate that I am about 50% more productive on a laptop that is exactly configured to my specifications. The ability to use the applications that I want on the operating system that I prefer (that would be Ubuntu) would make a huge difference. It is the small details that make all the difference. I can’t use my normal keyboard shortcuts, I don’t have access to the command line to do things in batch, I don’t have a decent browser, I cannot edit images; I could go on much longer.

Many of the sites I need to look at don’t even work on IE6 anymore. The other day I browsed to drop.io from work and got the following message:

drop.io IE6 message

drop.io IE6 message (click to enlarge)

Embarrassing right?

So, here is my recommendation to all companies:

At all times allow your employees the freedom to use the technology they want

Yes, this means that you cannot standardise on hardware and software.

Yes, this means you have to allow access to your network from the device that your employee chooses.

Yes, this means you will have to support open standards so that people with a Mac or running Linux can access your applications.

Yes, you will need more bandwidth because you will have to allow YouTube and Facebook.

Yes, you will have extra costs because of all this.

But these extra costs will easily be offset by the extra productivity that your employees can deliver for you. In a couple of years it might actually become difficult to find employees that want to work for your company if you don’t heed to this recommendation.

Is your productivity affected by your workspace? Does your company allow you to choose your hardware? Can you install the software that you want and/or need? I look forward to any comments.

My Top 10 Tools for Learning

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

Number 10 by Flickr user Downing Street, CC licensed

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 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. I just wish there was an open source project that would do the same and could run on my own server.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Written by Hans de Zwart

13-10-2009 at 21:39

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!

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