Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Blogger beta & fabric of folly 2.0

So I decided to take the plunge and port this blog over to Blogger beta despite having read one or two cautionary tales. Those of you not reading this via an RSS reader will note that I also took the opportunity to give the site a much needed lick of paint (new logo, wider columns, bigger Flickr photos, yadda yadda yadda...)

So, what of Blogger beta? Is it as troublesome as everyone says? Well, it all depends on who you are and what you're after. If you're a newbie blogger looking to create an attractive and functional blog without getting your fingers covered in HTML goo then it's really not a bad choice. The drag and drop interface works well for basic layout changes and the labels (categories) are a nice addition. If, however, you're a seasoned blogger who's used to tinkering under the hood then it's likely to prove a frustrating experience.

I certainly wouldn't recommend moving an established blog over unless you've got a whole day to kill. In fairness, you are warned that your template may be affected by the move, although it's only once you've done the deed that you realise quite how many bits and pieces you had setup - the sidebar content, the FeedBurner feed and the Flickr login will all need reinstating/updating. Ultimately more annoying is the omission of some pretty basic bits of functionality, like making an image a link, although presumably this is the sort of thing that will be ironed out before it leaves beta.

The biggest boon from my point of view is the dynamic publishing - no more waiting for your whole blog to republish following a minor template tweak. The new spellchecker also impressed me as a simple but brilliant innovation - instead of a popup taking you through the text word by word, it simply highlights all the queried words for you to scan and correct as necessary using on-click dropdowns.

Whilst Blogger beta is undoubtedly an improved offering for blogging newbies and may be worth the pain for some intermediates, it is unlikely to tempt the pros away from Typepad or WordPress.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

2007: the year of the widget?

Widgets, gadgets, call them what you will - mini modular applications are starting to look suspiciously like the next big thing, not only on the desktop and the web but also increasingly on mobile devices. The inaugural Widgets Live! conference in San Francisco was a sell out earlier this month and attracted sponsorship from four of the biggest players in online media (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL). The W3C has released a draft standards doc. Widgets have even spawned their own 'pedia' (widgipeida) - an intriguing new barometer of online buzz (e.g. Lostpedia, Wookiepedia).

So why now? Konfabulator first launched over three years ago and its been a good eighteen months since Apple released Dashboard as part of Mac OS X Tiger. Below are half a dozen key factors that have contributed to the breakthrough of the widget.

1.) Increased broadband penetration

A large proportion of widgets rely on an always-on broadband connection to drip-feed dynamic content to them. Increased broadband penetration means more people capable of running widgets. Higher spec computers and the development of operating systems which cope better with running multiple applications simultaneously have also helped cultivate a more widget-friendly environment. Like the personalised homepage (see earlier post), the widget has come of age thanks to technology finally catching up with the ambition. What was the Active Desktop (bundled with Windows Desktop Update way back in 1997) if not a widget engine let down by immature technology?

2.) The widespread adoption of AJAX

Thanks to AJAX, web widgets now behave more like desktop applications. They are more responsive, they can be dragged and dropped and they update dynamically, without the need for endless page refreshes.

3.) The arrival of the big boys

Apple's integration of Dashboard into Tiger in April 2005 and Yahoo!'s purchase of Konfabulator a few months later (in July 05) undoubtedly represent a key turning point in the history of the desktop widget, not least because Yahoo! opted to make its newly acquired widget engine available for free. On the web, it was the arrival of Google and Microsoft to the widget party which really got things moving.

4.) The emergence of converged widget engines

A few weeks back Fox Interactive Media unveiled SpringWidgets - the first widget engine to work on both webtop and desktop - and Windows Vista is due to offer native support of Microsoft Gadgets (currently only available via Windows Live) via its sidebar. Converged widget engines will undoubtedly prove to be a shot in the arm for the fledgling widget economy.

5.) The maturing of mobile internet

The next frontier of widget development is the mobile platform which has been opened up by the flood of Java-enabled colour screen handsets and the movement towards tolerable internet access speeds on handheld devices. WidSets in one of the first products to the market in this space and a it's pretty good first stab. Once flat-rate data tariffs become the norm this area looks set to explode.

6.) Small is the new big

A more fundamental reason why widgets are starting to take off is the broader shift towards smaller, more rapidly developed applications and increasing hybridisation by means of mash-ups and APIs. One only need compare the protracted product development cycle of Microsoft Office (gap between releases: 4 years) with the iterative development of Google Docs and Spreadsheets to see where things are headed. Widgets fit perfectly into this new landscape of smaller, simpler, connected apps.

To round off, here's a list of some of the key products in the world of widgets:

Desktop widgets
Apple Dashboard (Mac)
AveDesk (PC)
Brass (PC)
DesktopX (PC)
Google Desktop Gadgets (PC)
Kapsules (PC - currently offline)
Klipfolio (PC)
Samurize (PC)
Yahoo! Widgets (née Konfabulator) (Mac & PC)

Web widgets
Bitty Browser
Google Web Gadgets
Opera Widgets

Converged widgets (desktop and web)
Microsoft Gadgets

Mobile widgets
mobidgets (currently in private alpha)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Second Life media frenzy

The media seems to have gone Second Life crazy over the last week or so. First there was Endemol announcing a virtual version of Big Brother to start on 1st December with 15 Second Life residents competing for a virtual island. Then German newspaper publisher Axel Springer announced the launch of a virtual tabloid, SL News, offering "snippets about showbusiness and human interest tales from the avatar world" and retailing at between 10 and 15 Linden dollars. Finally, Rivers Run Red announced the launch of a virtual TV station,, with content from Channel 4 (TV and radio), the Sci-Fi channel and even the great unwashed in the form of music, video and machinima.

It's easy to forget that dear old Auntie was one of the first out of the gate back in May when Radio 1 teamed up with Rivers Run Red to host a virtual version of it's One Big Weekend festival (real-life location: Dundee) on an island it's renting in Second Life. Sony BMG recently followed suit, pairing up with The Electric Sheep Company to host a Ben Folds virtual meet and greet on its 'Media Island'. The Electric Sheep Company also brokered Reuters recent entry into Second Life and facilitated the BBC's first foray in January as part of Newsnight's Geek Week.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Wikipedia has a rapidly-growing list of businesses and organisations which have operated in Second Life, which includes another couple of media heavyweights (MTV and Disney). It appears that Second Life is rapidly becoming a key place to extend your media brand. Not that all of these brand extensions are solely for the benefit of the residents of course. At the moment, a presence in Second Life is more of a brand statement than a viable distribution channel (much like the web was 10 years ago), guaranteeing a company a fair few column inches and possibly a bit of cool-by-proxy. This will change of course, as the Second Life population grows (it passed 1 million residents last month) and the possibilities of the medium become more apparent.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The MOO MiniCards have landed

At last my MOO MiniCards have arrived from across the pond and they're just as dinky and cool as I'd hoped they'd be. For just $24.98 (about £13) MOO will print 100 of your flickr photos (all different if you want) onto mini oblong business cards with your contact details (or any other text of your choosing) on the reverse. I opted for 50 different photos - two copies of each - so I can keep a set and give the others away. It's a great example of what's possible with APIs. Right, I'm off to build a House of MiniCards!

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Online text-to-speech apps are helping to blur the lines between blogging and podcasting. One such app is Feed2Podcast which uses text-to-speech conversion to instantly turn any RSS feed into a podcast. No need to register, just paste a compatible feed into the dialog box on the homepage. Admittedly there's only one choice of voice which is the classic Stephen Hawking style speech synthesizer. It also doesn't always cope well with punctuation.

Talkr offers a similar service, although you must register in order to generate a podcast and it got my postings back-to-front so the most recent blog entry appears last in the audio feed. On the plus side, the female voice synthesizer is a fraction easier on the ear and it makes a better fist of trying to interpret images and other metadata associated with the post. It also pronounced Flickr correctly whereas Feed2Podcast has to spell it out.

It's interesting to note that some traditional print brands are already exploiting this strange convergence of technologies. The International Herald Tribune's recently launched AudioNews service uses ReadSpeaker software to convert its articles into MP3s which can then be added to a custom podcast.

You can listen to a podcast of this blog (created using Feed2Podcast) here or subscribe to it using iTunes on either your Mac or PC.